Monthly Archives: April 2008

France 2008, the Other Camera

I used to shoot film many, many years ago and every frame had to be carefully consumed, as film and processing was expensive.  I did actually shoot hand loaded Ilford HP5 B&W on a Minolta 35mm SLR and develop myself, but in retrospect, I didn’t have the discipline to actually work the darkroom well.  When I got a digital camera while in Halifax around 1999, suddenly you had the freedom to take as many pictures as you wanted.  It was literally unlimited:  I’d take pictures of drunken classmates, little mussels on boats pulled ashore, people tossing each other off piers, etc. Going back to an SLR, this time digital, I noticed I stopped taking “fun” pictures and forced myself to take only “serious” photos.

Around December I received a CD of photos from other people that were in the tour of Italy I was on in October.  One of the photos features one of them crouched over in a miniature bathroom, dripping wet while sitting on the toilet.  As most of you know, European (and for that matter Japanese) bathrooms often have the shower right over the toilet.  The photo instantly brought me back to Italy thinking of the strange little hotels we visited.  Certainly my carefully composed, technically perfect images shooting with a 20D/17-85mm were postcard perfect.  But I’d never thought of taking a picture in the hotel bathroom for posterity’s sake and suddenly I thought, I have 2700 frames with 21GB of data, but I have no pictures of the hotel shower.

I decided to buy a Canon SD1000 point and shoot just for those kinds of shots this past Christmas. I actually had my EOS5D/EF24-70mm f2.8L alongside this camera in a Mom-made slipcase sewn from an old sock for all those strange images you don’t shoot with an SLR:

From top, left to right:

  • Juice and pop at a Casino convenience store in Strasbourg
  • Subway on the way to Atomium in Brussels
  • The world’s fastest moving sidewalk at Montparnasse Metro in Paris.  Not working the day we went by.
  • Support beam from the Vertigo ride at Walibi Belgium.
  • Strange “soap on a handle” dispenser in Tours.  I did not try it.
  • Arianne and Iain on Vertigo.
  • Sign on a TGV Duplex trailer pulled by a TGV Reseau power car from Paris to Cannes.
  • Peas, potatoes, bacon and carrots with leg of duck for lunch in Tours.
  • Dinner time menu-board reading in Paris, near Gare de Austerlitz
  • Dessert at Buerhiesel in Strasbourg.
  • Vetements Hip-Hop in Strasbourg.
  • Dog wishing his owner would drop him some food in Tours.

Conclusions?  The SD1000 has frankly the worst image quality I’ve ever seen out of a digital camera.  There’s more noise in the photos than on a 90’s “alternative” rock album.  The focal range is pointless, there’s more controls on a Fisher Price toy, and the dynamic range/latitude is flatter Ashlee Simpson’s singing.  But I can now say I have a photo of a restaurant called Bien Dong in Poitiers, France.  I don’t think I’d shoot that with my 5D.

France 2008, Day 10

Today we left early to venture out to the town of Hambach, situated closed to the border with Germany. Hambach is the site of the Micro Car Corporation, better known as Smart. Originally an idea of Nicolas Hayek, the creator of Swatch, the Smart was supposed to be a cheap, economical city car that could be altered depending on fashion. Hayek had dreams of the car being possibly electric or a hybrid, economical like the Citroen 2CV that I’ve seen this past week still on the streets. He teamed up with Volkswagen initially but when they dropped out, partnered with Mercedes. As Mercedes got involved, their innovative engineering and quality drove the car’s complexity and price higher and higher. Perhaps Hayek didn’t know what he was getting into, but the resulting fortwo, or City-Coupe was pretty far from what he originally wanted.

Despite all of this, smart finally broke even last year, after several market missteps. The factory, named smartville, is a modern complex in the fields of Alsace and is shaped like a cross. Major parts of the car, like the entire engine and transmission, the door panels and the chassis are prebuilt in adjacent factories or shipped in from elsewhere and assembled at the centre of the cross. The chasses come in on the top on a hanging conveyor belt, the powertrain sits on an AGV. Both join on an endless loop until finished, at which point they leave. In many stations, work is performed on the move, tools and equipment travel with the worker and the car as the assembly line progresses.

Our tour guide explained every smart is unique to some degree and that perhaps is the most impressive achievement at smartville– literally as we watched, each car differed in powertrain, colour, style and even right hand or left hand drive. A European cabriolet was followed by an American gas powered model, followed by a diesel Smart right after. Parts are delivered in kan-ban (remember that, Madhava, Nadine or Heather?) inventory style–as a worker uses up a part, he scans the tray and a third party logistics firm is prompted to bring in more parts, loaded from dedicated loading docks on the sides of the cross. The parts are always in sequence, so the engine subassembly vendor has to bring in literally a diesel, then a gas, then a diesel, in order.

Before the guided tour, where we walked the length of the production line, threading up and down along the workstations, we gathered in their Communications Centre showroom. Inside are a number of Smart firsts, including the very first prototype, hand fit metal exposed; the very first production car, signed by all the employees; and the Brabus V6 Biturbo Roadster; one of ten built as a demonstrator. Sadly smartville contains many references to the Smart forfour and Smart Roadster, two models cancelled as part of a recent refocusing of the company on the miniature two-seat car. The Roadster, well known as a fun to drive sportscar, never made it to Canada; the forfour was probably too similar to other supermini “Hot Hatches” that Europe is filled with.

After returning from smartville, we ventured over to the Cathedral of Our Lady to climb up to the church tower. Hundreds of steps later, we were rewarded with a expansive panoramic view of Strasbourg, twisty streets and narrow old buildings. Unlike my favourite panorama, Siena, Strasbourg’s buildings form a colourful patchwork quilt. Tonight, my last night in France, I had dinner at a winstub, a local type of tavern. Winstub apparently means a place where you can get wine, but the food was really good and while no one spoke English, it was pretty clear to me I was the only tourist. I was served braised duck with apples with spaetzle as a side.

Tomorrow morning the lot of us will take the TGV back to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and fly home to Canada. It’s been a good trip with a nice blend of driving and walking; the new and the old; and perhaps far too much eating. Now, at near midnight in Strasbourg, I have a sudden craving for veal sandwiches at Pacino’s.

France 2008, Day 9

Strasbourg is a lot smaller than I expected. Today was spent in this town near the German border with a definite cultural influence. All over France they have different combinations of languages for tourist signs and printed material: Always French and English, then your choice of Italian or Spanish. But around here, the third language is always German.

For lunch I had spaetzle, the egg dumpling/pasta common to the Alsatian area we are visiting. I also had escargot. We made our way out to Le Petite France, a part of the city with old style tudor houses with their characteristic half timbered framing. Strasbourg has the River Ill running through it, with canals and locks visible in Petite France. We watched as a sight seeing boat emerged from a lock in front of boutiques and cafes.

Walking around Strasbourg brought us eventually into a perhaps more shady area of town with a pawn shop, crowded with teenagers buying videogames; and a place that specialized in “vetements de hip-hop”. I also saw a store sized automatic vending machine, the only one in Strasbourg, I’m told.

Eventually we returned to the Cathedral of Our Lady. The outside, which only has one spire, added after the fact, has a intricate facade and design in the Gothic style.

This evening we met up with members from the Canadian Smart Car Club, who have arranged for a tour of the nearby Mercedes spinoff Smart plant in Hambach. We went to Buerehiesel, a local restaurant with a one Michelin star rating. Though all food is good in France, this evening’s dinner was outstanding; the starter was a duck foie gras and oyster mushroom on toast; the main a pigeon, with roasted fruit and vegetables and the dessert a brioche (toast) and ice cream flavoured with a light, sweet beer plus a poached pear.

Tomorrow is our big visit to Hambach to smartville, the modern factory where smart cars are produced.

France 2008, Day 8

It seems that in regular daily life you get lulled into a regular rhythm that goes out the door when traveling. Then you end up noticing the routine and schedule of the place you’re visiting. The locals in Poitiers, France, it appears, have decided to get rid of Monday morning. I took TGV service 9317 out of Gare Monteparnasse, Paris after an early morning hike across the city through the Paris Metro, which clearly has not heard about the concept of accessibility. Poitiers is a small town with a two thousand year history and boasts many of Europe’s oldest churches.

Leaving the train station, I walked up a hillside road where a statue with a soldier being helped forward by an angel stood overlooking the valley where the rail line ran. The base had an inscription dedicating the young men who fought for France in both World Wars and Indochina. Walking around Poitiers this morning, most of the shops were closed. The French seem to either discount the business of a Monday morning completely or open only between 2 and 4PM.

I had decided to print out the Wikipedia page on Poitiers before I left: The town is home to many students of the University of Poitiers, a famous institution. Apparently it is the second best school for law in the country, classrooms and buildings nestled into the centuries old streets of this town. The setting is certainly a lot more attractive than the dreary concrete Engineering Atrium in the Sandford Fleming Building. Eventually I made it to the church of Notre Dame la Grande, the oldest Roman church in Europe. It was built in the 11th to 12th century AD, and inside is very dark. The stone has painted frescos adorning it, but the darkness makes for a very intimate space. I donated some money and lit a candle.

At lunch, I wandered into a small cafe where no one spoke English. I hope this is a good sign, as the place seemed to fill with locals. One of the strange things I’ve noticed on this trip is that people eat late here. While I showed up at noon, ten to fifteen minutes later the rest of the place filled with other patrons. Another strange behaviour is the menu board: One night, at a restaurant, the server picked up a large three foot menu blackboard and propped it up at their table for a couple to choose from. I thought they were amusing the tourists, except it happened again today at a different restaurant, to people very clearly from Poitiers. The first time I saw it, I took a picture because I thought it looked hilarious, two diners holding a plaque larger than their table in front of them. But this has continued to happen at restaurant after restaurant. For lunch today I had a mushroom soup and Provencal style sausage filled with unusual bits of meat and a creamy ground mustard sauce.

Walking along the streets of Poitiers, paved with cobblestones and narrow twisty angles, I made it to the Saint Pierre Cathedral, which seemed large but relatively nondescript on the outside. A small sub door on one of the large wooden doors opened to yet a third wooden hatch which I had to climb over into. On the other side was a gigantic cavernous space, completely quiet with no one inside. With a capacity of thousands, the cathedral housed a huge pipe organ above one end. Exploring the cathedral alone impressed its size and grandeur on me, light streaming in from giant stained glass windows onto the stone floor. You can almost hear yourself think sitting in this giant church.

In the far distance, I saw apartment buildings standing up beyond the tiny streets. I suspect each town really keeps the old twisty streets and buildings, perhaps guided by historical conservation bylaws, and the rest of the town actually lives outside the old town walls in suburbs or highrise developments. In going to the Atomium the other day, riding the Brussels subway, I saw a different city, passing modern buildings instead of the old quarter perhaps left that way as a matter of tradition.

Poitiers has cleverly painted coloured lines around town to match their tourist office map so you can easily find your way to all the key sights. I followed the blue line to a few churches and museums, but by mid afternoon, decided to just sit and watch in the central square in front of the Hotel du Ville, the City Hall. Europe seems to have pretty lax or nonexistant alcohol laws, which makes for enjoyable scenarios like sitting with a bottle of red wine in a piazza in Italy, but also fuels the drunken homeless man walking around screaming and tormenting people in the square with his rants, tallboy can of beer clearly in his hand.

People eat late in France. Because I had to catch the TGV to Strasbourg, I needed to buy something quick, but all the restaurants were closed. I ended up finding a small shop which sold pasta in a box, automatically made with a self timing boiler. The poor guy behind the counter just pressed a latch, the pasta dropped into boiling water and minutes later, it came back up on its own. He ladled some sauce on and stirred it together with cheese. I hate to say it, but it wasn’t half bad.

France 2008, Day 7

I met up with the group at the Atomium, a giant sculpture/building shaped like an iron molecule. Built for the 1958 Exposition in Brussels, it gleams in the background of the city, nestled in the parks surrounding the center. Atomium perhaps brings back an age of boundless enthusiasm for science, the power of the technology. There are ads around town of a young fashionable woman in hat and gloves with a springtime dress in front of the Atomium, as if nuclear power was au courant and trendy. I was born of the age of Chernobyl, so I guess I’m less eager.

Atomium itself is a little unusual, it’s gleaming spheres seem a little out of place in the woods. Refurbished for the 50th anniversary of the Expo, it houses exhibits and a children’s’ play center. But it’s certainly an interesting sight in this trip of chateaus and pre-car market streets. We drove back to Paris, stopping on our way at lunch near Haute-Picardie, a small TGV stop along the A1 motorway. Haute-Picardie is known as the busiest station for TGV traffic in the country, nominated by the trainspotters of France. Iain and I stood out in a field, watching TGV Atlantiques, Thalys PBKAs and converted Eurostar Class 393’s fly by en route to Brussels or Paris at hundreds of kilometers an hour.

Returning into Paris was difficult. Suffice to say, driving and parking in downtown Paris is challenging at best. By the time we got the car parked, it was time for dinner. The group of us eventually went to see the Eiffel Tower at night. Though I’ve been up the tower in 2003, I found the sight of it illuminated at night to be astoundingly beautiful.

France 2008, Day 6

I saw a fantastic poster today in a travel agency that said “I traveled, I saw, I photographed!” made by Turkish Air, sponsoring a photography contest. My sentiments exactly. The “I saw” part really describes today, as I found myself observing four different scenes in the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels. I had the day to myself to look around Brussels, walking around. This trip so far has mostly been taking a car around Europe, which I’m not used to. The last four times I’ve been to Europe I’ve always found myself on foot, which gives many more opportunities for taking good pictures and seeing how people live.

I walked out towards the Place and Palais Royal, which is the home of the Royal Belgian family. While on the street, I was given a sample of Orange Fanta by a street marketing event. I guess marketers have to work extra hard in Europe, because just half a block later, I saw a parking lot sponsored by Nissan which encouraged drivers to drive in and leave with a test drive of a new car before returning to pick up their old one. Miniature can of Orange Fanta in hand, I continued to the Parc de Bruxelles, a rectangular tract of green space with city inhabitants jogging this Saturday morning. Countless tourists snapped pictures of themselves under the rows of trees and neatly divided lawns.

Tourists really were out in full force as I walked down the streets filled with shops and boutiques of the Grasmarkt. In Europe you always find these streets of mixed retail and outside patios. It’s kind of like walking down Queen Street in Toronto, but denser and more lively. I’m not sure if regular people drive around the equivalent of Mississauga and buy their stuff at Heartland Mall at Mavis and Britannia; and this is more for show, or they actually shop at these crowded narrow streets. Nonetheless, tourists of all kinds, including a bunch of German scouts, filled the streets this afternoon.

Yesterday I tried a waffle at Walibi Belgium and it was kind of doughy. I figured it was just because it was typical amusement park food, so I decided to try another one as a snack. I picked the most expensive looking waffle shop I could find; making live, fresh, not reheated waffles; shelled out 4.50 euros for the deluxe chocolate and fresh strawberry waffle combo…and it was doughy. While watching my waffle made, I noticed they had to spread the batter onto the griddle, versus just ladling it on. I’m going to go out on a limb and state that Belgian waffles I think must be doughy, not the fluffy ones we expect at home.

I got to the Grand Place and took a look around. My favourite plaza is the Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy; but the Piazza San Marco in Venice probably approximates the Grand Place in Brussels better. The square is boxed in by several large buildings ornately decorated with gold and stone carvings, some in the Gothic style. The buildings, including the Town Hall or Hotel de Ville, have been around since 1700. It reminded me of the buildings in Munich, though none of these had a cuckoo clockwork.

A couple came out of one of them, newly married with friends and families throwing tissue paper hearts into the sky. All the tourists, myself included, decided to take a picture of them, even though we have no idea who they are. Perhaps it will add some glamour to their wedding memories.

All of a sudden, screaming and chanting came from one of the side streets feeding into the Grand Place. A hundred teenage girls, dressing from the Avril Lavigne School of Fashion, came charging out and congregated in the centre of the square. I couldn’t figure it out, nor could other travelers watching them. They cheered at random intervals, and taunted the German boy scouts. I was trying to determine if this was teenagers lobbying the EU to make Emo a recognized country of its own, when I noticed many of the girls had the words “Tokio Hotel” on their bags and shirts. I finally gave up and asked a bunch of them what Tokio Hotel was, as I’ve been to many a Japanese hotel and they’re not worth cheering about. One of them told me in English that it was a band they all liked and the lead singer apparently has lost his voice. The fan club has apparently decided to rally the troops to wish him a quick recovery.

If that wasn’t strange enough for you, about five minutes later, two girls dressed like maids or nannies walked into the square with an object in a stroller. It appeared to be a sculpture or doll of an anthropomorphised animal/baby. They went around asking people their opinion of the creature in the stroller. I asked the guy with the 5D/70-200mm f2.8L IS following them what the deal was, and apparently it is an art project. The creature is supposed to be some sort of hybrid dog and baby. The two ladies ask you to fill out a survey and if the artist likes your answer, he or she will mail you the baby sculpture. I was trying to frame it as a social commentary on bioengineered crops or hormones in our drinking water, but I was told it was just art. It’s really kinda hideous, so I’ve decided not to put it up for show. I guess I also don’t get to win the sculpture, as they were looking for a compassionate interviewee.

I left the square to find the Bourse, the original Stock Exchange for Brussels. I also continued to look at a few cathedrals. One of them, sadly, gave me a shock: Half of it had been converted into a shelter for refugees. It was visually arresting to see hundreds of colourful but makeshift beds filling out an apse of the church just a few hundred feet from prosperous businesses nearby.

I made a detour to the main city library, discovering their free washrooms and section about Expo 58. I spent about ten minutes reading about key Brussels landmarks, comparing it to the free map from the hotel. Then I continued to the Cathedral of Saint Catherine, built in 1226.

Siobhan had suggested going to Leon’s in Brussels to have “Les moules”, a famous Belgian food, mussels. Unfortunately I couldn’t manage to find this place, so I ended up at another restaurant, where I had moules au vin (mussels in white wine), some fries, and a Maes, which is a blond beer similar to Stella Artois. I picked it solely based on the number of ads for Maes around the city. I know that’s a poor way to choose anything to eat, but it seemed pretty good. It tastes just like a Stella.

In the square, a bunch of roadies and sound guys sat behind a large mixing desk with a handwritten sign saying “Jazz concert, 20:00h, We do not have any more information”. Earlier I had seen the portable stage being set up, and I wanted to watch this performance, so I decided to wait around. I gave the sound guy a “yeah, a gig’s a gig” look, grabbed a metal chair, and sat down and waited. The jazz band, students from the local conservatory, slowly filed into the plaza, each carrying their instrument. A full sound check was done, to a growing crowd of perhaps two hundred.

Shortly after the sound check, it started to rain. I sat on my precious chair, with my 5D/24-70mm tucked under my fleece to keep it from getting wet. A lady who also had secured a seat earlier offered a plastic bag. We all sat it out and thankfully, the skies cleared for the band to start. The conductor explained it was the culmination of their jazz/big band program and the students were working in cooperation with the city of Brussels. They launched into an hour of jazz hits from both Belgian composers and the greats like Mingus and Parker. I think that was the best travel experience I’ve ever had.

France 2008, Day 5

Today we met up with Iain, who flew into Charles de Gaulle, and made our way out to Belgium. Our destination was Walibi Belgium, an amusement park near Brussels. About a year ago, Iain showed me a video of an unusual theme park ride called Vertigo. Built by Doppylmayr, a company that makes cable cars as well as small people mover systems like the new monorail at Pearson, the thrill ride basically takes four people at a time on a ski lift chair up high, then releases them on a rigid track to glide down. The manufacturer figured ski resorts could use this off season to attract customers who wanted the thrill of gliding down a mountain over tree tops and valleys. Walibi’s ride, is built onto several hundred foot towers, so you glide literally in the air, supported only by swinging from the track/rope above, completely exposed to the ground below. I agreed we had to go to Walibi to try it someday.

Vertigo is really unique. I’ve been to a few of the better rollercoasters in the country, including the largest wooden (The Beast at Kings Island), the tallest and fastest (Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point, until 2006) in the world, and several Bollinger and Mabillard models amongst them. But this ride is quite unusual. It’s not scary, it’s almost liberating. It’s as close as you can feel to flying like a bird. Walibi, on a Friday in April, was deserted, and every ride was a walk on. As a result, the park staff encouraged us to take multiple rides. By the first run, I had discovered the ride was so smooth you could probably do conference calls and write out your memoirs on it. By the second, I decided I wanted a photo from the very top. And by the third, I wanted a panorama. It took a total of above twelve rides to get the panorama you see above, which meant taking it to the top, pulling out my camera, shooting a few frames, before the car dispatched down the line.

Around third or fourth year in Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto, the fine folks at Marriott Food Services decided to put in a waffle iron into the Medical Science Building. I had already made a habit of running out of the Rosebrugh Building where the IE offices were, across the alleyway and into the back door of MSB to get to the cafeteria there. The waffle maker soon became a regular, nay, daily routine, the sustenance that drove brilliant papers (I say this with a fair bit of sarcasm) like “Decision Analysis: Should We Create a Plutonium Economy?” and “Design of a Workstation for Butchering Meat”.

While there, I decided I wanted to try a waffle as one of those Belgian specialties, but unfortunately it was reheated and really doughy. Soon we resorted to hotdogs (bad) and plastic cups of Stella Artois (good). It seems no matter where you go, amusement park food is overpriced and bad.

We continued into Brussels and found the hotel. Driving in gave us a view of the old houses, tall and narrow, that filled Brussels’ streets. Setting out into town to find dinner, my aim was to have some moules et frites (mussels and french fries), the second Belgian traditional dish I wanted to try. As the sun was setting, we walked out to the Palais Justice, the halls of law, and looked out into the city below. The silhouettes of the old buildings cast stark cutouts into the haze.

Walking along we happened upon Mannekin Pis, the urinating cherub. The stores nearby had all sorts of largely garish souvenirs of it, but I didn’t really think the original statue was that impressive. Given the Little Mermaid of Copenhagen, or the brass boar of Florence, or that Hachiko the Obedient little dog in Tokyo, the pissing statue was kind of a let down.

Following down into the city, we walked through rows of boutiques and small restaurants. I had a fantastic time shooting the narrow streets and nightlife. Brussels, like Toulouse, was very much alive and youthful. In some larger plazas, there were open air cafes serving patrons outside. We never found Leon’s, but ended up having dinner in a small restaurant about half way up the hill.

France 2008, Day 4

The overnight sleeper train was an unusual experience. When I was six, my grandmother and aunt took me to Quebec City as a weekend trip and we got to go on a VIA Rail sleeper. I thought the idea of sleeping in a bed on a train was so cool at the time, that maybe people had entire houses on trains! Unfortunately your idea of cool at age six and as an adult are a differ just a little bit. For one, there are only two toilets on the car, and you share the room with strangers, of which you may need to be on the top bunk with. Despite all of that, the train motion has an incredible way of making you fall asleep, so if you ever have dozed off while riding the subway, you’ll instantly feel at home. Also, the compartments are almost lightproof, making visual distractions almost completely nil.

We pulled into Paris Austerlitz around 7AM, the station still asleep. I found myself up an hour before, charging my World Blackberry on the shaver plug in the wash basin compartment at the end of a car. Today’s agenda was blank: We were to look at the station departure board, pick a random place to visit, and head there. Thought Versailles was a possibility, it ended up being the town of Tours, about two hours away.

We had a moment for lunch in Tours where we ate at a local bistro. Packed with locals, the restaurant had a daily menu which today included a seafood salad, roasted leg of duck with vegetables, and strawberries in light syrup for dessert. It was fantastic. One of the things I love about Europe is that you can have great food for reasonable cost without any of the pretentiousness that comes with fine dining in Canada. You don’t need to dress up to have stuff plated with ring molds. That’s awesome. There’s also not an emphasis on dialing something up, just for. The strawberries for dessert, they don’t need to be drenched in glaze, they were just lightly sweet, almost bordering on natural.

Tours has several chateaus spread across the Loire Valley. We picked a bus tour which first took us past the town of Amboise, then onto Cheverny. The chateau at Cheverny was started in 1624 and has remained with the same family for 400 years. Apparently they actually still live there. The grounds and interiors of this chateau were pretty, but it wasn’t really that inspiring.

The castle at Chambord on the other hand, was amazing. A masterpiece of French Renaissance architecture (I’m reading this off the brochure, I couldn’t tell Renaissance Architecture from 4G Packet Switching Architecture) the castle took two hundred years to fully complete, including a war, the abduction of a king, and numerous other delays. If the Airbus assembly complex was impressive in size, Chambord is impressive in size and difficulty, because this was all done in a time when people had to cut blocks out of raw stone with hand tools. The castle has 440 rooms spread over four levels and an outside keep.

Leonardo da Vinci supposedly inspired the key feature in the castle, a double helix staircase designed such that one path may never see the other. In the centre, a shaft illuminates the staircase through cutouts. Its complexity and novel design are really beautiful. The castle has a huge room dedicated to showing a video of the construction in CGI. The layout is unusually symmetrical and modular, with sections cut and pasted. For example, the king’s apartment is on the right side wing of the castle, but the left side is balanced with a similar layout for the chapel. The terrace on the roof is also really impressive as its elaborate layout of turrets, towers and peaks aims to suggest a busy medieval landscape.

Inside the castle today was a number of Chambord inspired products. Ford apparently made a Chambord car, Air France had a plane named after the castle, and of course there is Chambord liquor–aka, the Purple Holy Hand Grenade. This insanely sweet concoction was said to be the creation and favourite of King Louis XIV. The exhibit cleverly referenced the old Warhol Brillo pad piece by making all the displays out of stenciled plywood.

Driving along in the bus through the small rural villages; churches and houses dotting the landscape, was serene. Along the roadside you would see scenes of country life, colourful fields of flowers and unusual trees with clumps of leaves, always in neat rows framing side roads. Eventually we picked up the train in Amboise, a small town in the valley, and made our return by train to Paris. Dinner tonight included a poached salmon in dill sauce, a classic.

France 2008, Day 3

In high school, our French teacher showed us “A Year in Provence”, the telefilm made from the Peter Mayle book where a hurried executive from Britain decides to move to the south of France with his wife, learning presumably more about himself from his strange new surroundings and quirky neighbours. I couldn’t figure out if we were to learn about the French country life or that the teacher was trying to get out of a lesson plan for four periods.

Regardless, the film was undeniably charming, as well as the book, which I later borrowed from a friend to read. This morning as I found myself on a train to Toulouse, eating a croissant, I looked out the window onto the fields of Provence, thinking of what it would be like to live on a farm in the Provencal country side.

I kind of like waking up at the crack of dawn if given a specific task, such as getting on a plane to Copenhagen ordriving to a supermarket to time workers making muffins. Today I got up at the crack of dawn to get to the train station in Nimes. The place was deserted in the early morning save for a few passengers looking to get to distant destinations.

My destination was Toulouse, home of Airbus and it’s 17,000 workers on site. A coworker who is fascinated with airplanes suggested I visit the Airbus plant, since they offer a factory tour. Airbus is one of two major manufacturers of airliners, the other being Boeing. They build the famed A380, the world’s largest airliner, as well as the smaller A320, 330 and 340 models. Two tours were available today, one of A380 factory, the other of the A330/340 line.

The A380 tour began with a presentation of the control room used for the A380 test program. It isn’t the real control room, but they had all the video displays including the data telemetry which the guide explained to us. They showed various envelope pushing tests including stalling the giant $290 million plane and making it nearly fall out of the sky. The projection screens showed the engine throttles and artificial horizons as the plane started to lose lift.

We then took a drive around the site on a bus, reminiscent of when my parents took us to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida when we were kids. The crowd appeared to be a mixture of children who liked planes, adults who liked planes and bored others dragged to this unusual industrial complex in the outskirts of Toulouse to look at things like static engine test deflectors and logistics warehouses full of disembodied airplane parts.

Finally the bus wheeled up to the front of a giant building. Out in front was an A380, fuselage unpainted with only its tail in Emirates livery, waiting for avionics testing. Never having seen one, I was disappointed that it wasn’t as impressive as it appeared on television. The building on the other hand obsucred your entire field of with nothing but aluminum siding. It was immense. The guide walked us through explanations of how Airbus shared work between four European Union countries and how each part got delivered to the city, using ships, outsized transport planes and finally special trucks. They showed a video of trucks delivering giant wings through small villages, which apparently happens once every couple of weeks.

The big tour stop was going, perhaps eight stories, up to an observation deck in the building, overlooking the assembly hall for the A380. Three of these planes, one for Emirates, two for Qantas, were surrounded by platforms of workers and tools, jacks and rigs to construct this machine. It was a this point I realized how large the A380 was–A worker sat on the wing cleaning something up with a roll of paper towels. His blue coveralls were a small dot on the giant lime green wing, still unpainted. Underneath the plane was a two story building used to house the project office for each unit being built. The vertical tail itself was taller than my new four story townhome, a fact which is impressive on its own, until you consider a semi detached townhome doesn’t fly.

One couple on the tour was there to see their daughter who worked at Airbus. She mentioned that when you work there you often forget the scope of what they do. Apparently Airbus operates their own miniature airline to shuttle employees off to their other operational sites across the continent.

I wasn’t expecting much from the A330/340 tour, but it turned out to be much more interesting. Again we got onto the bus, but it took us out around the runway of Toulouse’s airport. As we drove along, one of the five test A380’s taxiied out onto the tarmac, and began its takeoff roll. The bus driver and guide sped to the far end of the runway so we could see it take off, quickly followed by a newly minted A330 being delivered to a customer in China. All of the audience, kids, bored parents and planespotters together cheered when the plane took off. By this time, another two Emirates A380’s had parked up in front of the assembly building.

As we drove along, two men in the bus were taking notes about the planes around the complex. I was a little concerned when they started writing down tailcodes and production serial numbers. I guess this was because the tour demanded we hand over all cameras before starting. I couldn’t figure out if they were anorak planespotters or inept industrial spies from a competitor.

The A330/340 assembly complex seemed even larger than the A380. In one hall, planes were worked on from all sides, both inside and out. In the other, the primary assembly of major components was carried out. As we watched, a completed A340 was rolled out in front of us, workers unlatching gates and watching for obstructions from the massive jig platform underneath as a tractor towed the massive plane forward and out through the open hangar door. In the meantime, we could see the various pieces of the next plane being herded into staging positions. An empennage (rear tail cone) waited to stage right, a midsection was being lassoed by an overhead crane, and as if on cue, a nose piece was being backed in on a flatbed. Two horizontal stablizers were already in place to the left and a vertical tail sat alone on the far right. It was like a Lego plane, except each hundred foot long part was several million dollars. If we had stayed another hour, we would have seen the raw assembly, though it takes apparently six days to finish the assembly before it’s carted off to the next hall for fitting and wiring.

The tour guide was really good, albeit in French. I often give tours of our lab to bored teenagers, enterprise customers and new customer service recruits, and I try hard to answer every question appropriately. The guide for Airbus Visit answered questions from little kids such as what the planes were named (good question) and how colours were picked as well as from airplane hobbyists who tossed out questions about ETOPS certifications and twin engine performance. I was also surprised how interested French children are about airplanes.

This evening I went back to Toulouse for dinner. I walked along the streets of this city, which appears to be young and vibrant. I found a restaurant and went inside, finding myself to be the only patron. Empty restaurants worry me, after watching several seasons of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares. However, the staff assured me this was normal as the people of Toulouse like to eat later. I ordered a ravioli with gorganzola as a starter, local fish as a main, and a strawberry “soup” for dessert. And the minute the appetizer was served, people literally started pouring in. The fish was grilled and served with chorizo sausage and tomatoes on top, along side was risotto framed in a ring mold and some vegetables. It was a full house when I left. I regret not ordering their local house specialty, the Cassoulet. It is a terrine of some sort and when other tables received theirs it looked good.

In a way, the Europe I’ve seen shows two faces: One of age old customs and beautiful locales; the other is the forward facing, sans serifed typefaces of modern industry. I’m happy I saw both these past few days. As the sun came down, the people of Toulouse came out. Unlike Nimes and Nice, Toulouse was awake with energy at 9PM. I walked back to the train station to board the Corail Lunea service, a sleeper train back to Paris.

France 2008, Day 2 continued

The mountains here have a colour to them, of reddish rock like in Arizona. They are contrasted by dark green foliage. Driving along the twisty roads brought us around them and afforded majestic views periodically. We alternated between harbour and mountain view, straddling the ocean.

Eventually we realized the day was running long and went into the town of St Raphael. Tomorrow I needed to get to Toulouse for a tour of the Airbus factory, so we figured we could make it to a random town close enough to hop onto a train. That town, picked solely due to train schedules, was Nimes. Another place we picked was dinner, at a nice restaurant in Aix en Provence. With a plan in hand, we took back off onto the road, this time away from the coast and towards Aix.

Aix en Provence is a beautiful little town. The streets are picturesque, dotted with old trees blooming in the French spring. Unlike North American cities, drawn on straight orthogonal plans, the streets here meander around in circles, which is delightful or irritating, depending on whether you’re a passenger or a driver.

Field note: Navigation in France is difficult. I forgot to get a GPS receiver for the laptop, so I’m stuck trying to give instructions based upon what street signs are around. Which the French apparently are not big on posting. As you drive up to a cross street, you are left to stare to the far right, looking for a business card sized plaque naming the street itself instead of the billboard sized street signs we’re used to.

Visiting in the offseason, which appears to be every trip I’ve taken, has it’s benefits and drawbacks. It’s typically cooler in the spring and fall, and there are less crowds (I’m told the Uffizi Gallery in Florence was unlikely if I went in the summer). However, it also means many things are randomly closed. Like the restaurant we wanted to go to tonight–a hand written sign saying they were closed for a few days. Why? No reason. Luckily, there is no shortage of good places for dinner in France, so a dinner place just down the street included foie gras for a starter, dore fish on a risotto with pine nuts, and a cheese plate of brie as a dessert.

Our last task of the day was to find our way to Nimes. Arbitrarily chosen as a place with a scheduled train to Toulouse, we decided to make our way there via Autoroute. It was difficult to find a hotel in Nimes, which led us around the center of the town and past the Arena, basking resplendent in its night time lights.

Unfortunately the big box store has hit France hard, as we headed to the “outskirts” of Nimes (read two kilometers away from city center) to look for accomodation. The stores are huge and have giant signs proclaiming their deals inside.

This also has extended to dining: The country that brought us haute cuisine and the Michelin guide now also has an establishment called “Le Restaurant Hippotamus”, replete with Boston Pizza style neon signage. Not to say I dislike big box eating, in fact, I quite rather like the garlic bread at Jack Astors, but I hate Boston Pizza’s decor with a passion.

Something struck me as unusual driving around in France: Nothing is open past a certain point in the night. I’m used to seeing gas stations open all hours, while most of them are closed by 10PM here. They also don’t illuminate the signage at all hours of the night, making driving through the jungle of big box stores a desolate experience.

Tomorrow, onwards to France and the world’s largest airliner.