It would appear that France survived our absence while we visited friends and family in Sydney and New Zealand. Not only France but our house and “children” also seemed to thrive in the care of our housesitters, Georgie & Peter. At one point they sent us a photo of themselves, together with our dogs, in a bar in nearby Carrouges. Underage drinking, indeed; Alice & George are only 10! Oddly, though, on our return, we found our back garden almost bare of its usual population of birds. Perhaps all the tits, finches and sparrows got fed up with their regular diet of sunflower seeds, fat balls and peanuts, and moved elsewhere. I don’t see any increase in the number of raptors such as buzzards and kestrels so I doubt that they have been the cause.

I’ll post some photos at the end but this account of our travels will be a collection of observations rather than a day-to-day diary, so you don’t have to worry, at least not unduly so. There will not be any “On Tuesday we visited friends on Auckland’s North Shore”. Promise.

But to start at the beginning, there is always a frisson of excitement and anticipation when one sets off on a trip, isn’t there. One of the aspects of France that I’ll miss when we eventually leave here is travelling on the TGV, the High-Speed Train. We took one from Le Mans directly to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris (CDG). I get a real thrill when I see the sleek, streamlined shape of the TGV as it glides into a station. Well, I used to be a trainspotter in my youth; but I ditched the anorak years ago.

A word of warning about CDG. Beware the oyster & champagne bars. Perhaps they only have them in the terminals used by the rich arab airlines such as Emirates, but they are still a rip-off. Silly us thinking that the microscopic dob of caviar on a spoon to accompany the aforementioned champagne & oysters that we treated ourselves to was  “on the house”. Ha! €10 per spoonful!

Australia describes itself as The Lucky Country. Those who live in Sydney with its beautiful harbour and wonderful light certainly are lucky. No tits, finches or sparrows here. Yes, they do have those annoying and noisy Indian Mynahs (pesky immigrants!) but they also have such startlingly colourful birds as Rosellas, King Parrots and Rainbow Lorikeets. The last named even match the Mynahs in decibel level and overall bossiness.

At last, Sydney also has -cue fanfare- a working travel card system on its public transport. One was meant to be in place in time for the Sydney Olympics… 2000. Hong Kong has had its Octopus card for years and London has the Oyster card. Sydney did have a system but it wasn’t ready in time for the Olympics and it didn’t work anyway. Finally, the city has the Opal card for users to swipe when getting on and off buses, trains and ferries, and it does work.

Bus travel in Sydney is educational. Riding in to North Sydney I was astonished at the number of Asian pupils boarding my bus outside one of Sydney’s selective schools. These are state high schools but you have to pass a test or tests to gain entry. Our son, Jeremy, with whom we stayed, told me that parents of Asian pupils coach their children from about the age of two in order to pass those tests. That’s why their faces predominate.

I guess the nicest surprise was realising that not every country’s shops shut for two hours over lunchtime and on Monday mornings. In Sydney, many are even open on Sunday! How very unfrench!

Back at the bus stop, I came across adverts for a new Giorgio Armani men’s fragrance called ‘Profumo’. For people d’un certain age, that name conjures up a somewhat different odour: the smell of scandal. In 1963 a senior British government minister, John Profumo, had to resign his post because he lied to the House of Commons over his involvement with two, ahem, high-class call girls, Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies. That gave rise to my favourite quote. When it was put to Ms Rice-Davies in the witness box during a court case associated with the scandal that Lord Astor, at whose stately home Profumo had met the two women, denied all the accusations made against him, she replied, simply, “He would, wouldn’t he”. There endeth centuries of forelock-tugging deference to the ruling classes. Unsurprisingly, Armani chose not to use the image of the former Minister of War in its advert.

The main purpose of our trip to Sydney was to visit our granddaughter, April. She’s now 2 1/2 and delightful; of course! The Artist Known As Sue gave her painting lessons while we were there. You’ll see the photos later. Her parents, Jeremy & Giselle lead incredibly busy lives so April goes to daycare where, being 2 going on 20, she reportedly bosses all the other little mites.

A word on architecture. The suburb where Jeremy & Giselle live, and where we stayed, is Castlecrag. The whole suburb and some of the houses were designed by the American architect, Walter Burley Griffin and his wife Marion. Walter designed the city of Canberra, the national capital of Australia. His and Marion’s idea for Castlecrag was to design houses that blend in with the local flora and sandstone rock. They do that but I’m glad he didn’t repeat the exercise for Canberra as I find his Castlecrag houses depressing. Not so the Dr Chau Chak Wing building at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS). It was designed by Frank Gehry, the man who couldn’t create a cuboid building if he tried. His work has the most startling facets and angles. This one is no exception. Photo later, but it bears the name “the squashed brown paper bag” with good reason.

Another word, but on Aussie celebrity chefs. We enjoyed catching up with a particular group of friends at the restaurant at the Art Gallery of NSW. The restaurant there is run by Matt Moran, a well-known name in culinary circles in Australia. My meal was average but Sue chose as a starter something called “school prawns”. In Sydney the word prawn conjures up something of a decent size that you can chuck on the barbie as Paul Hogan used to say, or even put a lead on and take for a walk down the road so big are some. These were tiny and reminded me of potted shrimps.  Sue said they were barely edible. Guess we should have asked the waiter. At least the wine, conversation and ambience was good.

I’ve discovered a new figure of hate. It’s called Travelex. The currency exchange people have refined the term usury. Normally when exchanging Aussie dollars for the New Zealand variety you come away with more in your hand. Not with Travelex you don’t.  When Sue exchanged AUD300 at Sydney Airport she only received NZD270 in return. And Travelex now monopolise airport exchange bureaux. Still, the reason she had the cash in the first place is because she had sold some of her paintings whilst in Sydney. Sue did the same in N.Z. She sold some of her art both to friends and at a stall at the sunday market run by her brother.

I really do like New Zealand, and New Zealanders; when I can understand them, that is. Those who know the old chestnuts about sex/six/sux and fush and chups know what I’m talking about. For me NZ has always been the quiet achiever. It has arguably the best rugby union side in the world. And when their yachtsmen won the Americas Cup, the noisy, brash neighbours on the other side of the Tasman -or the ditch, as the Kiwis like to say- ignored the return fixture in Auckland totally.  Those could be said to be niche activities, but they do make some excellent wines; Sauvignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of the South island in particular. In addition, NZ is busy making itself the adventure capital of the world with all sorts of wild on- and off-water activities. That’s when they aren’t cashing in on the Middle Earth/Lord of The Rings phenomenon. Native, i.e. Maori, culture is very strong. Indeed, I saw numerous adverts inviting applicants for positions in Maori tourism. But how do you pronounce the word? The traditional method for us pãkehã (people of European descent) has been ‘Mowri’, but lately I have heard something halfway between ‘Maari’ and ‘Moori’ spoken by people in a position to know, like Sue’s niece, Polly, who until recently held an important position in Maori affairs in the government in Wellington. Oh, and the Kiwis definitely have a sense of humour; Air New Zealand’s inflight safety videos are never less than entertaining. They certainly get your attention. And see the photo later on of the “recycling” bin in Auckland.

Apart from visiting Sue’s brother and partner, Mike & Gwyn, in Auckland we also spent time with Sue’s very good friend, Gill, on the Bay of Plenty, a few hours drive to the ESE of Auckland. If Australia is the Lucky Country, Gill is a lucky lady. She lives in a beautiful spot, atop a cliff with views out to sea and native NZ birds in the pohutekawa trees around her house. It wasn’t all beach walks and bird watching though. We have decided to sell our 15th century house in France; That will go on the market next northern spring and we plan to buy a house in NZ in that area, probably in or near Opotiki or Whakatane. We looked at several and most were at ‘popular prices’ i.e. we like ’em!

The Butterfly Effect theory says that a butterfly that flaps its wings in the Amazon can cause a hurricane in New Mexico, or some such. Well, there is something in that. While we were in NZ there was an earthquake and tsunami in Chile. Even though the effect where we were wasn’t very large, there was, as a result, a 50cm swell that hit the East coast of New Zealand’s North Island at Gisborne on the other side of the Pacific. The tsunami alert was enough to warrant the local Civil Defence volunteer, one of Gill’s friends, alerting everyone in her local community. What they are really concerned about, though, is an eruption of the volcano on White Island, 50kms offshore and very visible. But as you can see from one of the photos below, the Tsunami Warning System at Opotiki is on constant alert!

While on the subject of knock-on effects, the refugee crisis in Europe has washed ashore in Wellington. The government there has agreed to double its intake of refugees; that is only from 750 to 1500 but NZ is a small country where sheep outnumber people (just…I think) and it was a change made willingly without all the bickering and fuss that has gone on within the EU.  What there is a fuss about is the Prime Minister, John Key’s desire to change the New Zealand flag. My radar detected that the whole business is a non-issue and people are happy to stay with the one they’ve got.

Sue’s brother-in-law lives just outside Auckland near Ardmore Airport. That is the home of NZ Warbirds, an association dedicated to the preservation and operation of ex-military aircraft. How nice of them to give us a flying display to remember NZ by on the day we left Auckland on the first stage of our journey back to France. There were Tiger Moths (in the plural) and Harvards and there may even have been a Mustang or two. The camera I had with me wouldn’t have been able to capture them adequately as they flew overhead so I have stolen a couple of photos from the website.

Meanwhile, back in France, we missed the fifth French season, La Rentrée, the first full week in September when schools and government departments re-open after the summer holidays, but arrived back in time for the first week of the hunting season. What that means is: don’t walk in the woods at the weekends with your dogs and make sure your cats are safe and not out there acting as target practice for hunters.

There are other flying hazards. Driving past the prison at Condé-sur-Sarthe last week I noticed that there is netting over the entire prison area. Looks like the authorities have woken up to the many uses of drones!

It wasn’t a completely soft landing. Before we left on vacation we had noticed that Alice, our Standard Poodle, was having difficulty climbing into our car, but we discovered on our return that her condition had worsened and she is now on anti-inflammatory arthritis medication. We are also looking at taking her for regular hydrotherapy sessions at a centre near Caen. I guess she is 10 years old and old age comes to all of us, unless you are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin und so weiter, but we don’t like to think of the future.

I’m sorry but I don’t have any new art from Sue to show you. She has only just (today) started painting again after our return and after a visit from a lovely, bright & breezy, and stimulating couple of Australian friends. She is working on painting modern Maori women. I’ll include some images in my next post. I’m not sure when that will be. I hope to maintain one post per month but, frankly, I’m running out of topics.

Enfin, we come, of course, to the German language…..The other topic that I’m not going to mention is the rugby world cup, especially now that England have been eliminated, thanks in large part to a defeat against Wales. The Celts have been crowing, as they always do when they beat England in any sporting contest. The word that describes their feeling rather well is Schadenfreude, that wonderful Teutonic word which describes delight in the misfortune of others. I have another for you: Altenlebensangst: the dread of meeting, quite by chance, someone from your past life, whom you had hoped never to see again, while walking down the street. For example  it could be the  date you stood up and left standing in the rain at a bus stop. I have a dread of meeting some folk who once turned up at Gatwick Airport to catch a flight to Athens to play a game of football but…that’s for another time! Here’s another one: Fotogelegenheitshoffnung: that secret hope that you will be in the right place at the right time with your camera or smartphone ready when something completely unexpected happens. The photo you take goes on to make millions for you when you sell it to media outlets. I mean, a Martian spacecraft could land in the field next to you……

Here are the promised photos. Just run your cursor over the photos and the captions will appear…..À Bientôt