Sunday, May 24, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #512] Baarle

Being a geography geek, I've wanted to visit the twin villages of Baarle-Hertog/Baarle-Nassau since I learned of them.  They are, as the sign says when entering, "30 Enclaves, Two Countries, One Village".  So a few weeks ago, I popped over to visit my friends Lottie and Rob, and to meet their newest son, Flip, with a side overnight trip to the "most remarkable village in the world"™.

Baarle lies a few kilometres inside the Dutch border from Belgium, but several tracts of land, varying in size from a single house to many city blocks, are Belgian.  Nested within some of these blocks of Belgium are further blocks of The Netherlands.  The story of how this came to be is, unsurprisingly, very complicated.  The essence is that various blocks of land belonged to two separate aristocrats, and when The Netherlands and Belgium separated, the aristocrats did as well, and their lands became Dutch or Belgian with them.  The village now lives a double life: two police forces, two post offices, two churches, two school systems, two of every municipal service.

This has allowed the village what must be called a rather robust tourist trade, considering that, outwardly, the village is not so different from any other small town in this corner of Europe.  The enterprising towns have done a solid job dressing up the village for visitors.  The border is demarcated throughout the town, and every house number is done on a plate including the appropriate tricolour so you are always aware of which country you're in.

I knew that, once we'd taken photos straddling countries and of borders winding through the town, we'd pretty quickly exhaust our options in Baarle.  Fortunately, Lottie and I have quite a lot of fun doing very little together.  And so it was: town explored, photos taken, outdoor cafe selected, wine ordered -- it was a fantastic weekend.


Baarle's high street, with the border dividing it between The Netherlands and Belgium.

Lottie and I, both being foreigners.

Tax law states that a household pays taxes based on which country the front door is in.  Not sure how this family does it...

The border even cuts through the church - er, liquor shop.

We wondered why our chosen cafe had plenty of seats, whereas many of the others were packed, and then we noticed the sun.

However, our seats came with a vastly superior view.

Eventually we gave in, though.

For the evening, Lottie booked us into an amazing hotel.  Here we are waiting for The Four Man Band to come on stage to sing some of their repertoire of "nearly 80 songs".  This was followed by drinks with a dozen Bulgarian migrant workers who reside in the hotel, as one does.  Well, as we do, at least.

On the way out, we went to look for enclave H12.  Per satnav, this is it!

Map of Baarle, showing the nested enclaves.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Kentish Town ~ Camden ~ London NW5 ~ UK ~
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Friday, May 22, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #511] BOM-VNS-A&E

I broke up the long-distance engagement with a trip to the subcontinent.  The first port of call, as ever, was Mumbai to meet up with Sushil and spend a few days.  Despite his warnings, I opted to stay in Navi Mumbai this time around as it's near his work (he couldn't take off the whole week), and I have an interest in urban planning.

Mumbai, like Manhattan, is an island city, and long ago ran out of space.  To ease the pressure, the government built Navi (New) Mumbai across the bay.  The idea was to provide an organised, planned urban environment for businesses and government - only the government was never actually persuaded to come, and, until recently, neither was business.  However, companies, especially those that require large campuses, are starting to heed the economics of Mumbai and migrate across the bridges, and at least some people are following them; it's sort of an Indian version of New Jersey (Oh god - I'm marrying a Jersey boy!).  But the city itself doesn't seem to have any unifying theme or direction, so rather than feeling like an Asian Milton Keynes, it's just urban India, only with straighter, wider streets.

Central Navi Mumbai

And a very Indian ad at the mall.  Everything's at the mall.

After a few days of air-conditioned shopping it was off to Varanasi, the holiest city in Hinduism; it also played a central role on the development in Buddhism, and is one of the oldest continually-inhabited cities in the world.  Lord Shiva was believed to have lived in and loved Varanasi, which lies on the bank of the Ganges River (Ganga).  The river is itself a god, descended from Heaven, and bathing in its waters will cleanse your spirit.  Hindus from across India will bring their loved one's ashes to be spread in Ganga.  It is believed that dying in Varanasi itself will provide salvation and end the Hindu cycle of death and rebirth.

The city has an old, spiritual heart, and a chaotic, sprawling, newer hinterland.  The streets in the old core are really alleyways, much like in Jerusalem, only, this being India, they are shared with cows, goats, bikes and motorcycles as well as the mass of humanity.  The city spreads across many kilometres of riverfront, famously lined with 87 ghats, or stairways, leading to temples, homes, old palaces, hotels and hospices.  There are acts of religiosity around you all the time - prayers, lectures, chanting, ceremonies, cremations - giving a tangible essence to the city's spiritual reputation.  That, and its low cost of living, have guaranteed Varanasi is a magnet for Westerners looking to fill a hole in their lives, and Caucasians with dreadlocks in hippie clothing speckle the crowds of the devout laying their dead to rest.

One of the alleys leading to our hotel.

Varanasi, spreading along the Ganges.

One of the more colourful ghats.

Riverside religious lecture.

One of two burning ghats, where bodies are cremated.  Different castes are burned at different levels; the higher the caste, the higher the level, with Brahmans actually burnt on the temple structure itself, rather than the ghats below.  The two larger buildings to the left of the red tower are hospices, where the poor wait to die.  They're surrounded by the wood used for the pyres.

The Ganges is a working river, cleansing people of their sins, factories of their polutants, and clothes of their stains.

Along the ghats.

Even cows like a little retail therapy.

Beginning our evening bout tour.

At sunset each night the Ganga Aarti, a coreogrphaed Hindu ceremony, takes place on the central ghats.

Ganga Aarti

Sushil making an offering to Ma Ganga, Mother Ganges.

And then much quieter...

...the ghats at night.

And then it hit: Delhi Belly.  In my travels to Southeast and South Asia, I've managed to avoid it, but not this time.  I'll spare you the details, but it's very unpleasant and very uncomfortable.  I had a lot of walking in 40+ heat, the flight back to Mumbai, a "romantic" last night spent in bed there, and then the flight to London, all in its throes.  Sushil was a trooper and took charge of everything and care of me.  Proving he's the right man for me, while I was passed out in the hotel Mumbai, he canvased the local streets until he found a store that sold Sula wine for me to bring home.

Back in London I took the Heathrow Express and a taxi to home, then straight to A&E where I was hydrated, injected, and sent off on my week away from work.  Now, hopped up on antibiotics, I am starting to feel healthy again, but will be taking the Eurovision weekend lightly, as prescribed.

My NHS tax pounds at work.

A terrible end to an otherwise great trip.  But travel is like finance: no risk, no reward.


Shaun H. Coley ~ Kentish Town ~ Camden ~ London NW5 ~ UK ~
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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #510] (Un)Independence Day

Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed a certain someone popping up in pics in my TLOS eMails and FaceBook posts.  I met Sushil in 2011, on my first trip to Mumbai.  We kept in touch with WhatsApp and Skype, and eventually I saw him again when I went back in 2013. 
After that
, things stepped up, and the intercontinental trips have become more frequent.  We decided on his last visit here that it's time to cohabitate, so, to facilitate that, we'll be getting civilled (a civil union; though same-sex marriage is legal in the UK, neither of us want the religious undertones of marriage, so we're going for a purely civil ceremony).

The ceremony and reception will be on 04 July - I couldn't resist the irony.  :-)  It will be a very small ceremony at the borough hall with
just the family and our wittnesses
, followed by drinks and nibbles at
one of our favourite pubs
 with some
close friends.

Right after, Sushil will return to Mumbai
the tango with the Home Office for
 visa will begin.  It could be as short as a few weeks, or as long as several months - no way to tell or rush the bureaucracy.  Once he's over, hope to introduce everyone soon, be it here in London, or on our travels.  Whichever it is, it's a good reason to meet for a drink!


At "Snow World" in Chennai, where Indians can get a taste of

At The George in Dublin, earlier this year.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Kentish Town ~ Camden ~ London NW5 ~ UK ~

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Monday, May 04, 2015

[The Life of Shaun #509] Fifty in Florence

Not me of course - that's decades away - but my brother-in-law, Alberto.  Lara's husband decided to celebrate half a century with a dinner and party in his hometown, Florence.  Lara event managed this into a 70s theme - no exceptions.  The whole family was there: Lara, Lisa, Pops, me, and Janine, our cousin and Mom's "third daughter".

I did not have fond memories of Florence from my first visit almost ten years ago.  My friend Sean and I were based in Bologna, and, short of time and money, did a daytrip into the city of the Medicis.  I remember parking far away, walking frantically from one tourist hotspot to another, eating very ordinary pasta, and then quickly returning back to Bologna.  I have had very little desire to return.

In the years since, I've learned that Italy is not to be rushed.  There's just too much to see, and if you try to see it all, you'll miss the point.  This trip was all about the party, with a few casual dips into the city, and it made all the difference.  Over the years, wealthy families have competed to leave their mark on the Tuscan capital, and the result is a handsome, confident city, which fits naturally into the hills around it.  Every street eventually leads to an elegant piazza, arcade or church that one patron or another financed to impress his peers and God.  There is a constant stream tour-groups with selfie sticks flowing throughout, but walk a street or two off the main routes, and you get to see the city as it is as a home.

The quinquagenarian party was held at a prince's villa, as one does, about twenty minutes outside of town.  Being Italy, we first had apertivos - wine with food - before sitting down to dinner - food with wine.  From there, the party moved upstairs to a grand hall for spirits, sweets, and dancing disco style.

It was a fantastic party and fantastic weekend, and turned my first impression of Florence on its head.  Now I regret not visiting Lara there more frequently; she is moving the family up to Bremen, in Northern Germany, where Alberto has been working for the last 18 months.  Il sospiro.


The Florentine skyline.

Lara, me, Janine and Pops in front of the Ponte Vecchio, which is still covered with buildings, as was common for bridges in the past.

The smallest outdoor restaurant in Italy?

Oops!  Someone asked me if had been drinking wine, and I said no...

One of the many gorgeous squares of Florence.

The Duomo, Florence's heart and glory.

Janine and a family friend, Laetitia, got into a spot of trouble.

Ready for the party with Lisa Fawcett.

Mac daddies.

Getting ready to dance!

And, to end the weekend, brunch in Lara's backyard.  Not bad at all.

Shaun H. Coley ~ Kentish Town ~ Camden ~ London NW5 ~ UK ~
Fifty in florect
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