Thursday, 30 June 2016

Not bad for a 751-year-old...

České Budějovice, you still look mighty fine - especially after dark. Not bad for a 751-year-old.

* The city of České Budějovice (population 93,000) was founded in the year 1265 by Czech king Přemysl Otakar II. 

Class reunion #2

The night after class reunion #1 I met some of the students of the class of 1997, the second batch of graduates from Česko-anglické gymnasium (Anglo-Czech High School). The turnout was smaller than the previous night's get-together but it's the quality that counts. From left, Gábi, Zlatana, Lukás, JP and Nikola. Thanks Zlatana for making it happen, to Gábi and JP for travelling from Prague, and Nikola for travelling from Frymburk. 

Class reunion #1

One of the reasons for visiting České Budějovice was to take part in the 20th anniversary reunion of Anglo-Czech High School's class of 1996. This was the first class at the school - they started in 1992 when the school roll was just 26 and there were just three full-time teachers, including me - and I'm still in regular contact with several of them. It was great catching up with them again and finding out what they're doing now. Many still live in České Budějovice, a few live in Prague, one is in Holland and one in Iceland (!). 
Alas I didn't think about getting a group photo until late in the evening when several had already gone home; also missing from this photo is Jirka, who flew from Holland just to take part in the reunion. In the picture, from left, are Eržik (former class teacher), Lucie, Filip, me, Honza, Klára, Karolina, Klára and Zuzana. It was great to see you all again. 

Eržik in action

Jana (now living in Prague) and Zuzana (Iceland, via Hungary)

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

The Garden Party

Every June the staff and students at Anglo-Czech High School, where I taught way back in the 1990s, celebrate the end of the school year with a garden party. This year's programme included a prizegiving ceremony, skits, musical performances and a haka. This is my haka crew, from tercie class, after our final rehearsal. They did a great job picking up the moves and learning the words in just a few hours. Before I left New Zealand I had some training from Mori Rapana at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds to make sure I taught the haka properly and respectfully. Kia ora Mori! 

Each year I sponsor a prize for the best student of English, and this year's winner was Kristýna Králová. Well done Kristýna!

Things I love about the Czech Republic

1. The trains

I was a bit concerned when I saw the fancy new trains in Prague but I needn't have worried. The trains that trundle between Prague and České Budějovice haven't changed - you can still open the windows, stick your head out, and feel the wind in your face. Once day Health and Safety will arrive in central Europe and the fun will be over, but for now you can still do it. 
I also love the way stationmasters put on their red cap, step outside and stand to attention as the train goes by, even in the tiniest country stations. 

2. Czech rye bread

O Czech bread,
How I have missed you. 
Your crunchy crust,
Your soft insides,
Your slightly sour tang. 
We have been apart far too long. 
Now let me eat you. 

3. Guláš (goulash) 

Served with dumplings and raw onion. No furher explanation required. Mmmm. 

4. Random meetings

You can walk around in České Budějovice at any time of day or night and be sure you will bump into old friends. Here is one such random meeting with Madla, Zlatana and Pavla. Na zdravi! 

To be continued. 

Ráchel and Sarah

On my first night in Prague I was hosted by Ráchel, who I last taught when she was about 10. Her sister Sarah joined us for the evening; Ráchel's boyfriend Petr cooked us a fabulous quesadilla dinner. The sisters amaze me with their language prowess - between them they speak fluent Czech, English, German, Russian and Polish (I've probably missed a few out); Ráchel and Petr are about to head to Madrid to perfect their Spanish. Here the sisters are in the Žižkov tunnel, a pedestrian shortcut through a hill of the same name. That's Ráchel on the left, Sarah right. 

This was Ráchel when I was still teaching her English... Only Boris the dinosaur hasn't changed. 

Welcome to the Czech Republic

Since my arrival in the Czech Republic I have been feted, fed and treated like visiting royalty. My former student Jana insisted on picking me up from the airport (which has been renamed since I was last here - it is now Václav Havel Airport, in honour of the late dissident/playwright/president) and driving me to a village near Prague where another former student, Jakub, lives. As you can see Jana is about to have twins; and by the time you read this Jakub and his wife Klára will have become parents for the third time. Congratulations! 

... and these are Jakub's children as of last week, Luisa and Šimon. When he's not looking after these two Jakub is head of the philosophy faculty at Charles University in Prague. 

Phase 2 begins...

Phase two of my trip has begun. Arrived in Prague last week on a cheap flight from Eindhoven. Thanks very much to everyone who helped and hosted me in the Netherlands, especially Ted and Angela, Pim and El, and Mieke and Hans. I hope to repay you all some day. 

Congratulations Sophie!

One of the best things about being in Europe is being able to share special moments with family. On my last night in the Netherlands my talented cousin Sophie graduated from the conservatory in Arnhem after a four-year study of singing (that's on top of the law degree she's already completed). I suspect there weren't many dry eyes during the graduation concert which doubled as her final exam, especially when she sang a a tribute to her mum and a song she had written for her grandfather as he lay dying (he has since made a remarkable recovery). Congratulations Sophie, you and your band were awesome. Echt super-goed. 

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Video: Bosch Parade

...and here's a couple of short videos from today's Bosch Parade. See my previous post for more details about this bizarre event.  

A parade like no other

Today the city of ´s-Hertogenbosch (try pronouncing that!) celebrated the 500th anniversary of the death of its most famous son, the painter Hieronymus Bosch, with a parade. But this was no ordinary parade. It took place on the River Dommel with every float built in the surreal, sometimes nightmarish style of a Bosch painting. With floats called "Funfair in Hell" and "Burning Desires" this was no kiddies' Christmas parade. I loved it. But I'll let the photos tell the rest... 

Op bezoek bij Anna en Sjoerd

Four years ago my cousin Anna and her partner Sjoerd came to visit me In Kerikeri; now it's my turn to go visiting. I found their flat (eventually) after cycling to Utrecht last night on a classic "oma fiets" (grandma bike) and they cooked me a tasty dinner. It was great to catch up with you again Anna and Sjoerd; see you later in Rwanda... 

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Kerikeri comes to the Netherlands

Yesterday I took a train to Leeuwarden, the capital of Friesland in the north of the Netherlands, to meet Kerikeri artist Chris Booth. He's working on a "living sculpture" for Vijversburg Park, which tries to combine art, nature and social goals. Once he's finished making the 4m-high stack of sawn-up branches you see here (with help from his intern, Isa), he'll place a large, holed boulder (a so-called "zwerfkei") on top. As the wood rots the boulder will slowly slide down the pole until, about 50 years from now, it reaches the ground. Chris describes it as a celebration of fungi, "the greatest recyclers on the planet". 
After this Chris will head to Hungary to take part in an exhibition of environmental art. 

Flashback: Cow orchestra in Spain's Picos mountains

A little taste of the scenery (and sounds) in Spain's Picos de Europa, near the mountain hut Refugio de Ariu at 1600m. Make sure you turn up the sound... 

Happy birthday Pim!

A few days ago my cousin Pim turned 65 so he treated us to dinner in a fancy restaurant in Utrecht. That's Pim at top right next to his wife Elly; across the table are their daughters Anna (bottom left) and Julia with Anna's partner Sjoerd. Pim and Elly's son, Jan, now lives in Uganda but he was there too, in a way, thanks to Skype. It was a triple celebration because earlier that day Julia, 22, passed the last exam of her business degree and Elly had her birthday a day earlier.  

Jan joins us by Skype. He's the cousin who's getting married in Rwanda in August. It wasn't easy to hear him over the hubbub in the restaurant... 

Pim is possibly the most travelled person I know. He has been involved with Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) for much of his life, first as a doctor in Mozambique and Rwanda, later as a director and consultant. Just in past week he's been to Chad and India; next week he's off to Greece. He's not planning to retire anytime soon. 

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Video: Riding the Dutch waka

And here's a wee video clip of my ride on the Dutch waka Taahimana. If it wasn't for the windmill and the canal-side apartment blocks you'd swear this was in New Zealand... 

A ride in the Dutch waka

I had an awesome evening with the Waka Gezelschap (waka group), a bunch of students in the Dutch city of Leiden who are dedicated to looking after the city's waka taua (carved Maori war canoe) as well as upholding Maori traditions in Holland. I was amazed by how seriously they take their role and how good their grasp is of the Maori language and kaupapa waka (canoe traditions). 
Their weekly club night on Wednesday started with a prayer followed by land-based paddle drills, a circuit of the city's canals in the training waka Taahimana, a performance of their own specially-composed haka plus the famous ka mate haka, and a closing prayer. The waka group is part of the Njord Royal Student Rowing Club - see my previous post for more details about their waka exchange programme... 

My first lot of photos weren't great, so I realised I was going to have to get on the waka to have a chance of getting a decent image. That involved perching on the prow of the waka so I could shoot back along the length of the waka. However, that also made the waka unsteady, so I had a anxious trip around Leiden hoping I wasn't going to end up in the water. That would've been the end of my brand new, and rather expensive, camera. However, the crew, led by kaihautu (captain) Alex Miesen, an English literature student, got me safely back to the waka jetty outside the city's ethnology musuem. Ka nui te mihi ki a koutou!

Afterwards I was invited to join the crew in a nearby bar for a post-training pilsje (beer). Thanks guys for a fun, and fascinating, evening. 
See the group's website for more information (in Dutch). 

The Maori capital of Europe

If there was such a thing as a Maori capital of Europe, it would be the Dutch city of Leiden. Not only does Leiden has a waka taua (ceremonial canoe) - made by the master waka builder and navigator Hekenukumai Busby - it also has a training waka, a whare waka (fully carved canoe house) and a permanent exhibition on Maori arts and culture in the Volkenkunde Museum (Museum of World Cultures). Best of all it has a 60-member student club dedicated to learning all they can about kaupapa waka (canoe customs) and upholding Maori culture in New Zealand, even though none of them have Maori ancestry. Every year several members travel to New Zealand to take part in Waitangi Day festivities and increase their knowledge. 

More to come about the waka club in the next few posts... By the way, Leiden is also the city where my father was born. 

In search of the Dutch Resistance

I spent yesterday in the Verzetsmuseum (Dutch Resistance Museum) in Amsterdam in the hope of finding a copy of the underground newspaper my late Uncle Frans made in World War II, at great risk to himself and the rest of the family, to counter the Nazi propaganda that filled official newspapers during the occupation. Part of the museum was dedicated to Resistance members who built illegal radios to listen in to the BBC and Radio Oranje (a Dutch radio station broadcasting from England), then used stencil machines like those shown above to print newsletters with the latest information about how the war was really going. The museum had dozens of underground newspapers on display, but not my uncle's. I now have to continue my search elsewhere...

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

So many cousins...

It's been a busy few days in the south of the Netherlands visiting everyone from the very oldest of my old aunties (96-year-old Aunt Didi) to my mum's only sister and the first boy she liked (tee hee). That's him, Albert, on the left with my uncle Arnaud and aunt Maaike in Eindhoven. On the way I also stopped in to visit my Uncle Wilbert. 

I stayed the night with my lovely cosuin Laura and her partner Tom, also in Eindhoven. Tom cooked a great Thai meal and I drank most of the New Zealand wine I brought plus half their whisky collection. Oops!

Earlier, I visited my cousin Karin, who showed me around a former industrial area of Eindhoven being regenerated for housing, arts and entertainment. Pity the weather's been terrible or she would've taken me gliding... 

I also visited my cousin in Gineke and her partner Rene, who work incredibly hard on an organic farm producing seeds and improving vegetable varieties in an effort to counter the stranglehold of big seed firms like Monsanto. They cooked a great dinner and showed me around their farm... 

... and here I am (with cousin Mieke, left, who put me up for the night in Leende, near Eindhoven, and Gineke) checking out a field where they produce parsnip seeds for organic growers. 

I also visited my cousin Birgit and her faithful retriever Dundee in Waalre, a small town south of Eindhoven. Birgit took me to see her 96-year-old mum, my aunt Didi. Didi is now confined to bed but still lives in her own home and knew exactly who I was. It was a short but moving visit. 

Friday, 10 June 2016

Where port wine got its name

My last stop on a whirlwind tour of northern Spain and Portugal was Porto, the city that gave Portugal (and port wine) its name. What a great looking city, with medieval churches and crumbling, pastel-coloured houses tumbling downhill to the Douro River. Walked heaps, tried some wine, drank lots of tiny, potent cups of coffee, listened to traditional fado music and ate even more cheaply than in Spain, but mostly I just soaked up this view from a bridge high above the river. 

Now I don't understand why it took me so long to visit Spain and Portugal. I won't wait another 40-odd years to go back. 

Spain's biggest poser

I mean, just look at this goat. What a poser. He knew he looked fine and struck a series of poses so I could photograph him from every angle before he ran off to see his lady friends. He stank though - I could just about smell him from the other end of Cares Gorge, in Spain's Picos de Europa mountains. 
Eagles and goats were all the wildlife I saw. For a while I was convinced I'd seen bear (or possibly yeti) footprints in the snow; turned out the paws belonged to a bear-sized St Bernard. 

A gorgeous gorge

One of my reasons for visiting Los Picos de Europa in northern Spain was to walk the Garganta del Cares (Cares Gorge). The 11km-long gorge slices the Picos mountains in two and plunges about 1000m from mountain tops to the Rio Cares.  In the 1920s a trail was carved into the cliffs to allow workers to access a hydroelectric canal. There's no handrail and in places it's a 200m drop straight down to the river. Espectacular!

Buen apetito!

The Spanish love eating and they love socialising, usually at the same time. On a rainy day in Santiago de Compostella I ran into Alfonso, who was hungry after completing the Camino de Santiago (the St James Walkway, a 1200-year-old pilgrimage trail). He explained some of the nuances of Spanish culture over a "menu del dia" (menu of the day) at a small family restaurant. Amazing value for money: Three courses plus half a bottle of wine for 9 euros. Here Alfonso is about to try the lentil soup and I'm about to tuck into a Galician-style octopus starter. Great to meet you Alfonso!

Thursday, 9 June 2016

The mother of all sunsets

On my second night in Los Picos de Europa I was feeling a little tired, cold and grumpy when the cook at the refugio (mountain hut) where I was staying the night suggested I wander up a nearby peak to watch the sunset. I was sceptical - it was cloudy and freezing outside - but I took her advice anyway. She was right. Just before 9pm the sun appeared, lighting up the clouds far below as they rolled in from the Atlantic and treating me to the mother of all sunsets. Made all the discomfort worthwhile.