"Scary Sandy" and Associates

Brittany has been beaten so many times by really bad storms and the like. It has been shattered, smashed to smithereens, crushed, ravaged so many, many times, both inland, in its coastal areas and at sea.

And now hurricanes, ever since 1987... (We just ‘celebrated’ the 25th anniversary of our first hurricane.)

We usually do not remember the names of the hurricanes. The years, yes... And every time , we talk about the ‘tempest of the century’... knowing very well that next year or one year from now, maybe two or five, another one will come, even more forceful and scarier.

And no one knows when it will happen again. It usually comes from the Atlantic Ocean which means our western border or sometimes from the south-west. (Those winds never fail to surprise the old people in Brittany.)

To tell the truth, hurricanes are fairly new in our history. We were used to wild squalls, terribly strong winds that could totally wreck houses and boats and woods, of course. But here and there. Several houses in a village. A few boats in one harbor.

We are learning to live with hurricanes with eyes and paths and whose track may destroy a huge part of a region and a country.

In 1999, I remember taking walks and drives throughout our area and realizing that there really was a straight path where havoc had been wreaked, leaving places on both sides totally undamaged.

Les Tertres had been badly hit just like our friend Bernard’s farm because they were on Lothar’s path. Our ‘neighbors’ were safe and sound. Fortunately, I’d say. Because this is the sort of fate you don’t wish on anybody.

High winds and squalls and strong gusts are so usual in Brittany that you know how to live with them. Even when it is blowing a gale, bringing trees down or slates, creating a few electricity shortages from time to time... You learn to live with winds that blow for several days and nights sometimes up to 70 miles/hr and over.

It is exhausting because it is so terribly noisy but you live through it because Brittany is windy, always windy. Some days more than others.

But a hurricane is quite something else.

For days now, ever since “Sandy” hit the Caribbean Sea and was said to go straight to New York, I have felt very distressed. I am always very worried whenever a hurricane wreaks havoc somewhere in the world. Because I’ve been there. I know how terrifying it can be and how dreadful it is bound to be for thousands and thousands of people.

Nature will bounce back. It always has.

But people will remain traumatized for a long time... not only because they have lost a lot but because it is so hard to face a severe hurricane. Frayed nerves at a minimum. More like PTSD though.

No wonder our ancestors were living in caves, usually well above the sea or the river level... I imagine that it took a few generations though to get to the point where it was much better to live above water level than below. Those were times when their only fear was that the sky would literally fall in and kill them. But since it was their one and only fear, their life was not any easier than ours. They probably spent an awful amount of time looking up.

Nowadays, we watch tv. We listen to the radio and we read newspapers.

Our lives are more overcrowded with mundane (and yet so important for us) concerns. And most of us live in cities where destruction will be a hundred (a thousand) times more important than it would have been in a desert... Well, cities versus desert... Maybe not to be compared but you understand what I mean, don’t you?

Conurbations brew disaster.

In 1987, Brittany was hit by a hurricane. It caused a lot of damage. But not this much when you think about it.

But in 1999, after hitting Brittany, the hurricane carried on till it struck Paris and the destruction was huge even though “Lothar” had somewhat weakened.

My anxious thoughts have been turning towards all the people who have been living through this terrible ordeal, from the Caribbean Sea to the American Eastern Coast, a few days ago and right now.

In Brittany, the wind has been blowing steadfastly but there has been no sudden silence and then no huge, terrifying crash like whatever happened on December 26, 1999... It’s windy, just windy.

“They” have been saying that we are bound to live through many hurricanes to come because of global warming. “They”, being scientists and green activists. But those are environmental issues that are obviously best left aside by our leaders considering our economy problems...

Then the well-known proverb will prove to be true... “He who sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind.”

That’s a great comfort, I know!


*Good Luck to all of you, and Good Night, I hope*...


My Travel Book - Paris - One Sunny Autumnal Day At Les Tuileries

Fall is my favorite season because I am a photographer and I love its colors, so bright and vivid even when it rains.

Belgium and Northern France have been enjoying some very exceptional weather lately. Sunny and very warm. Our own Indian summer! Very surprising but so wonderful.

Last week-end, we drove through the forest that surrounds Brussels. It was gorgeous.

Today, I was in Paris. What can you do when it is so sunny and hot in Paris? You take a walk through one of the many parks there.

I decided to go to the Tuileries Garden (Jardin des Tuileries).

The Tuileries Garden is a beautiful park. It used to be the grounds of a royal palace which was destroyed in 1871 during one of the many revolutions France has been through during her tumultuous past. The palace was right by the Louvre.

Parisians love to laze around the Tuileries whenever the sun shines. They sit wherever they feel like it on chairs so easy to move around from one spot to another. 
Children float small sailboats on the pools. This has been going on for ages. It was one of my favorite places in Paris when I was a child. 
And tourists crowd through the Jardin on their way from the Louvre to Place de la Concorde and Champs-Elysées.

Last week was FIAC time in Paris. FIAC being a grand Contemporary Art Fair. This year, they chose to exhibit works of art (sculptures) in a few parks in Paris.

They have started to remove them and I wanted to get a chance to see a few of them in situ. Contemporary art in parks just like the Middelheim in Antwerpen. (One of these days, I must write about my many trips to the Flemish Contemporary Art permanent exhibit in Antwerpen.) I love modern art.

When I got there, the Jardin was less crowded than I had thought it would be. People were mostly lounging around the pools. And there were less works of art than I expected but FIAC closed on Sunday. Today was Tuesday after all.

There they were, right in the middle of the big pool close to the Place de la Concorde. Susumu Shingu’s ‘Sinfonietta of Light’, moving in the wind ever so gracefully.

 Then there was something very strange called ‘The Arrow Slit’ by Nicolas Milhé... which actually people enjoyed a lot as a mirror.

The third one was very impressive, in a pool. A glimmering shell called ‘The Origin of the World’ (Cassis Madagascariensis) by Marc Quinn.

This one was very bright and crowded with children who loved to run around and inside out. It was so much fun to watch them playing around those big colorful splashes. 'Chromosaturation' by Carlos Cruz-Diez.

There were quite a few works around but the one I loved very much was right in a very small pond. One very simple sculpture called ‘Bateau’ (Boat) by Dominique Guesquière. It was so simple and so forceful that I spent a long time looking at it. The gulls loved it too.

 And then what? Quite a few other works actually. Some of them I liked. Others I did not.

After a while I focused my attention on what makes the Jardin so attractive - people. I enjoy watching people. And there were so many people around.

The Loner and the prattlers.
The sun lovers.
The cool one.

The reader who looked for peace and quiet and found them.
The friends.
And the guy who couldn’t stand to be cooped up in his office and who went out to work in Les Tuileries.

I really wonder what the weather will be like tomorrow in Paris or in Brussels but ever since Saturday, it is all about “seizing the day”... Sun shining. Beauty all around.

Let’s face it, it is bound to rain one of these days! So enjoy...

And yes, there are quite a few happy tourists in Paris!

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


"Let's vote," said Popeye. "It's compulsory," said Olive. But life is never simple in Belgium!

233 candidates. Should I choose randomly? 21 reasons why I should vote.

This time, it was compulsory. The four previous times, Popeye and Olive were very public-spirited. Yes, Popeye and Olive voted five times this year!

In April and May, they voted to elect their French President. They voted in Brussels. Yes, French people have their own polling station in Brussels whenever needed.

In June, they voted twice to elect their deputy. For the first time in their life, they chose to e-vote. E-voting was available to French residents in a foreign country. This was fun.

In France, voting is not compulsory.

This Sunday, Popeye and Olive went to vote one more time. But this time, in Brussels. Well, in their small city which is part of Brussels. (Brussels is made up of nineteen towns.

So they went to vote for their town’s local elections. Unlike France, Belgium allows its foreign residents to vote in the local elections. Unlike France, voting is compulsory.

This was a big first in Popeye’s and Olive’s lives. Especially when they heard that it would be “electronic” and that they would have to use a magnetic card, a screen and an electronic pen. This would be so much fun.

Besides they’d have to choose several candidates out of 233 contenders. Yes, this is right. 233 candidates to the local election in a small city of 50.000 inhabitants. Oh, the wonders of proportional representation! (Another difference between Belgium and France... It may take weeks to get a new town council... and months to get a government. Remember?)

You see, in France, you still get to choose a piece of paper with the name of your candidate (for President) on it or a piece of paper with one whole list of candidates per party (for Parliament and local elections). And you are not supposed to remove one single name from it.

But you have to choose at least two pieces of paper (therefore two candidates or two political parties) before entering the polling booth... just in case your neighbour is behind you and you don't want him to know who you are voting for.

And then you put one of them and only one (!) in a very small envelope (while in the polling booth)  and then you drop it into a ballot box and someone says: “A voté.” (Just voted.) Impressive, isn’t it!

On Sunday, Popeye and Olive got up quite early, took a shower, got dressed, ate breakfast, checked the map, got into their car and off they went to vote. Just like children. Eager to experience something new. No, just kidding...

The real fun started as soon as they got to the school and got ready to vote, each in his/her own polling station.

Popeye was registered in N°17 while Olive had to go to N°18.

They grabbed their own notification and their resident permit. One last kiss. This was a very solemn moment after all. And off they went. Popeye to N°17 and Olive to N°18 strictly obeying their notification.

At least, that’s what they thought they were doing.

When she arrived at her polling station (N°18), Olive held out her papers. The assessor checked them, put them aside and then gave Olive her magnetic card.

Olive walked to the nearest polling booth and was getting ready to insert her card into the computer when someone came suddenly behind her to prevent her from doing it. “No, no. You are not M. Popeye, are you?”

Well, not really actually.

Well, you see, Olive had kind of mixed up the two notifications. She had the right resident permit but she was at the wrong polling station with the wrong notification, with Popeye’s notification.

She was lucky she was in Belgium. The assessors started to guffaw. In France, this would have raised hell, well, sort of.

She was given her papers back. I mean, Popeye’s notification and her own resident permit. And she was asked to go to her own polling station where hopefully M. Popeye was waiting for her on hold.

Wrong. I mean, yes, Popeye was waiting for her. But he had already voted. Yes. Nobody had noticed that he was using Olive’s notification and that he was at the wrong polling station where he was NOT registered, by the way.

So there they were. Popeye was grinning. Olive was getting upset. And the assessors at her own polling station were looking a little bit embarrassed until they made a decision.

“Come here, Ms. Oyl. You can still vote here.” “Oh yes?”

“What name will I use?” said Olive. What a wretched sense of humour.

“Your own.” 

This is how Olive voted twice, yesterday morning. Actually only once herself but twice on the roll. Two Ms. Oyl voted yesterday in the very same polling station where only one of them was registered, of course. Because there is only one and only Olive Oyl.

When Popeye started asking questions about the validity of his vote and when he wondered, loud and clear, whether he should go back to his own polling station or not, someone said: “Oh, come on. Don’t worry. It does not matter. After all, you are French.”

Flabbergasted. They were flabbergasted.

They are French all right. So what?
One has to admit that like Shakespeare once said (about Denmark in “Hamlet”), there is something rotten in the state of Belgium...

Oh well, does it really matter? After all, when Popeye and Olive dropped their card in the ballot box, nobody ever said: “A voté”...

In France, voting is not compulsory but it is usually carried out according to the rules.

In Belgium, voting is compulsory. But one can obviously vote twice, according to the rule book.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*


Have a smoke!

In July 2011, non-smokers were expected to rejoice in Belgium when smoking was definitely banned from public places. Yes, that is right. July 2011. Probably beating the Western world record of disrespect for public health.

To be fair, smoking quit being allowed in schools in September 2008.

If you have been reading my blog long enough, you probably think I am quite biased against Belgium. This is totally untrue. It is not really a matter of sectarianism. I simply do not understand Belgium even though I have been living there for the past fourteen years.

As far as smoking is concerned, France reacted much earlier. Later than the US probably but as early as 1976 and 1991. The real ban came only in 2006 though.

Tobacco is heavily taxed in France. Last year, the government ‘earned’ 18 billion dollars from tobacco taxes, most of this money being pumped back into our ailing Social Security. The easy way to take care of people who get very sick because of tobacco.

Smoking is a very expensive pastime. A pack of cigarettes now costs  more or less 8 dollars and its price should go up pretty soon.

It sounds good for non-smokers, doesn’t it?

Well, let me tell you. I love to live in Brittany because people on the beach do not smoke... Or if they do, there is a lot of room to avoid them. But people usually don’t smoke while they are taking walks on the beach.

But try to take a long walk in Paris and I am sure that by the end of the day, your eyes will be watering and your throat will feel scratchy. Why? The ambient pollution? Yes but only partly.

People no longer smoke inside their office. It is totally forbidden.

Therefore, they break off every now and then and they go outside to smoke.

They usually stand on sidewalks when the weather is fine. When it’s raining, they still go outside to light their cigarette. Is there any other choice? 

They huddle in the entrance of their building. And then you do wonder what’s so enjoyable about smoking that people are ready to stand outside in the rain and in the cold while they are slowly inhaling poison. (Poisoning you too with the cloud of smoke they produce.)

Take a walk on the sidewalk and you become an innocent passive smoker because people smoke while they are walking by or because you walk by chain smokers. Your choice? Not really.

I used to love to sit at the terrace of cafés. It was so romantic in Paris. And it was fun in Brussels. Watching people walk by. Enjoying a sunny spot. Lazying around.

Nowadays, terraces are besieged by smokers who do smoke. Period. 

You look at the smokers and you feel like life is really unfair. They are enjoying the sidewalk and the sights and the passers-by and you can’t. Not anymore.

It is even worse when you get close to a school entrance hall. Then you do end up walking through a thick cloud of smoke. And you get lucky if you don’t get a cigarette burn on your way. (Kids under 16 are forbidden to buy cigarettes. What's going on there?)

And then the smokers will drop their butt without even putting it out. In Paris or Brussels, the butt goes out on its own but imagine what may happen along a country road when it ends up in a dry ditch.

The car drivers are even worse because they flick theirs through their slightly opened window. From time to time, the stub ends up dangerously close to you or in a baby carriage. (No kidding.)

I know I probably sound intolerant but if I feel like smoking, I want to do it on my own after weighing up the pros and cons and not because someone forces it upon me at every bend of my path.

I am pretty sure I won’t find many pros by the way. Who can in this day and age? Who can ignore the fact that “Smoking can seriously damage your health?” In France, they even took one step forward: “Smoking will kill you.”  Oh really?

What about us, harmless passers-by?

A while ago, I discovered this neon sign. The name of the café is “The Smoking Dog”... "Au chien qui fume"...

I had to stifle a nervous laughter though. In Paris, the dogs are pipe-smokers. In Brussels, smokers put their cigarette out in dog poop.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

My Travel Book - Brittany - 'Les Ebihens'

©Google Maps

There is a place very close to the harbor where our boat is moored, a place we love to go to whenever we do not have enough time to sail further away.

The Ebihens Islands - very small compared to Chausey and sort of tied to the land (a peninsula called Saint-Jacut-de-la-Mer) at low tide. Easy to walk to if you are careful enough to watch out when the tide comes in because it comes in quite forcefully. Easy to sail to. Even for Olive Oyl...

Those islands have been inhabited from very ancient times. Nowadays, they belong to six families, all of them Captain Michel’s descendants.

Who was Captain Michel?

It is a long story for such a small place. In the 5th century, the Catholic Church built an abbey on the peninsula, Saint-Jacut. The estate included the islands which became known as “Enez Bihen” (the ‘small island’ in Briton) hence their French name - Les Ebihens.

Vauban had a tower built on the main island in 1694 in order to protect it   (and Saint-Malo which is very close) against the British Navy. At the time, the islands belonged to the Royal Coastguard of Saint-Malo, Count Louis de Pontbriand. Interestingly enough, to finance the construction, he put a tax on mackerel fished during religious holidays.

During the Revolution, the abbey was ransacked and the monks’ estate was sold to one of Surcouf’s captains, Captain Michel.

Like I said before, his descendants still own the islands and they spend their summer holidays there. They very gracefully let people roam free on their land but they are very protective of the environment. 
One of the islets, once inhabited, is a bird sanctuary.
We love to go there. There is a good wakeboard spot behind some rocks and from time to time, we anchor the boat close to the main beach and whoever feels like it goes in for a dip.

We love to go there but the access is not this easy though and I have seen a very nervous Popeye steer the boat in-between huge rocks, watching for the small ones that are scattered all over and quite hidden at high tide. What would he do without a radar screen?

I imagine we’d never go there! And it’d be a shame. Of course you never miss what you’ve never seen or gone to.

Brittany’s weather is really fickle. You sail out of the harbor with such a blue sky that you feel you are going to have the dandiest day at sea... and a few minutes later, when you get closer to Les Ebihens, you decide against getting too close... "Mist and shoals can prove to be very treacherous," says Popeye who is a well-informed sailor.

Olive never contradicts him when on the boat.

Last Monday, Popeye and Olive Oyl left the harbor below grey stormy skies. But the sea was so calm that it really was fun to go to ‘Les Ebihens’. They truly were alone in the world. Imagine. One Monday afternoon in October. Threatening to rain. Quite warm but not summery either.

What a surprise. The sea was totally deserted but not dreary at all.

Actually Olive was so delighted when the sea turned to very still and glassy waters.

 Popeye looked up from his radar screen and finally discovered ‘Les Ebihens’.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*