Wednesday 30 April 2014

If I ruled the world (of museums)

The song may go “If I ruled the world, every day would be the first day of spring” but I have a different plan.

As mentioned in the last blog, we were in Amsterdam last week. The timing of this trip was around the tulips at Keukenhof and the renovated Rijksmuseum.  I have dealt with the first and now for the second:  the renovation stretched over ten years and cost £320 million.  The publicity says that the museum has been re-invented and it certainly has. We spent almost the whole day there and my tolerance is usually only a couple of hours. The collection is as wonderful as ever but the design and display is superbly done – with a super restaurant which offers two croissants as normal for breakfast......

If I ruled the world I could insist that the museum was closed to the public so I could have a private view but that would be a bit eerie and quite mean. I would institute a rule for museums and art galleries that for a two hour slot every day, no group bookings, no guided tours, no cameras (including smart phones) and no audio guides. One could then wander and look without having to elbow through groups standing in front of a painting blocking all views while they listen to a guide (saying everything in three languages) or with a vacant stare listening to the audio guide before skipping the next six paintings which are not covered by the guide.

(My best ever gallery experience was at one of my favourites – The Wallace Collection – I was at a corporate “do” and as soon as the speeches were over and everyone was tucking into the drinks and food, I went up to the collection and had it almost to myself for an hour before the rest came up – bliss. My worst "viewing" experience was the Sistine Chapel.  We booked in advance which was just as well as the queue was five deep and stretched for half a kilometre. Once inside it was so jammed that you stood shoulder to shoulder to look up and hope someone didn't knock you over.)  

I don’t have anything against guided tours (have had some amazing ones), audio guides etc – have used them myself but they are a pain because you keep being blocked by huge groups crowded round a painting. Cameras are a nuisance as there is always someone spending ages close to the picture, trying to line up that perfect photo – look at the painting – you can probably get a photo online or buy a postcard.  You cannot replicate the experience of just looking – not listening to anyone – just looking. Be in the moment.

Tuesday 29 April 2014

Abroad is foreign – oh no it isn’t (but this was unique - yes, the only one of its kind!)

A friend sent through a list put together by staff of a travel company of complaints they have received such as “We went on holiday to Spain and had a problem with the taxi drivers as they were all Spanish” and "On my holiday to Goa in India, I was disgusted to find that almost every restaurant served curry. I don't like spicy food."

The list is long and quite funny but having just come back from a European city my feeling was that all big city centres now look the same.  Within ten minutes walk from our hotel there were the following, McDonalds, Burger King, Waterstones, Accessorize, Karen Millen, Starbucks, Lush, Body Shop, Superdry, Abercrombie and Fitch, H&M, Timberland, Subway, Ben & Jerry – the list goes on and, no, I wasn’t in London’s Oxford Street nor in the USA – I was in Amsterdam.

We haven’t visited Amsterdam for probably 25 years and the change was dramatic. We had two reasons for visiting now – the first was to visit the refurbished Rijksmuseum, which was sensational. The second was to go to Keukenhof to see the tulips – I have never been and although have no interest in gardening but do like flowers, I thought this was something I should see.  I  thought all tulips looked like the ones you see in supermarkets - tulip shaped….  nothing can describe the variety of shapes and of course the colours were amazing.  My expectation was that I would see this

 but in fact most of the display is in wonderful landscaped gardens more like this

and here is just a small sample.


We ordered bulbs for delivery in the Autumn to plant and bring back a few memories – go early in the day before the crowds arrive.

PS I know this isn't properly formatted but life is too short to fiddle around with it any more.

Friday 18 April 2014

Should we be afraid

I remember Johannesburg in late 1976 – the riots, which started in Soweto in June of that year, had spread to other townships including Alexandra, a few miles from where we lived. The atmosphere was tense and uneasy. We knew that the press was censored so you never knew what was rumour or fact – no Internet nor overseas media.

We had returned to Johannesburg from London in 1970 to be closer to family but had not really settled.  While on the surface life was comfortable we began to realise that if we were not part of the solution we were part of the problem and by this point had decided to return to London.

My husband had two members of staff, an black African woman and a white Swedish woman. The black woman went out at lunchtime one day and was handed a leaflet which she was told to give to her white employer and which she did. She shrugged when she handed it to my husband and was fairly dismissive. It was badly reproduced, lots of typos and poor grammar but the message was clear – a certain day was declared “kill a white baby day” and domestic staff were urged to rise up and do that. Who produced the leaflet we never knew – a group, a couple of extremists, a political party – we never knew. The day passed like every other day.

I was concerned enough to go to the nursery school nearby where our children were and speak to the principal.  She showed me how the school had been designed so that it could be closed off – all windows faced into the courtyard - and there was a secret exit further down the road.  I was reassured, but convinced that I didn’t was to live my life like this.  (She was an amazing woman – Dr Unez Smuts (a great-niece of former Prime Minister General Jan Smuts) the first female minister in the Congregational Church of Southern Africa. She was a truly wise woman and I used to listen to her on the “Epilogue” SABC’s equivalent of Radio 4’s “Thought for the Day”. She retired some years ago and in googling her I see that the property is on the market – read about Dr Smuts and St Stephen's School

Why am I writing about this now? Last night we saw a press conference with John Kerry speaking about the talks that had concluded in Geneva about the Ukraine.  I have no idea who are the good guys and the bad guys, who is right and who is wrong but one comment he made which struck me was about a leaflet distributed in Donetsk to Jews leaving the synagogue after the Passover service. It called for all Jews over 16 years old to register as Jews and supply a detailed list of all the property they own, or else have their citizenship revoked, face deportation and see their assets confiscated.

It would now appear that these are not official (whatever that means in this context) and that they are a few individuals trying to provoke unrest.  To some extent they have succeeded as this news has reverberated amongst the Jewish communities in many countries.  This is an unsettling time of the year – Passover marks the flight of the Jews from slavery in Egypt – emotions are nearer the surface than usual perhaps.

Thursday 17 April 2014

How to turn that frown upside down

I always read the complaints section of “Which” and the Sunday papers.  Most of the time they obtain a positive result from the travel company /bank/insurance company/electricity supplier/ etc that has failed to rectify a problem. No doubt the threat of publicity sometimes does the trick but at least the publicity warns the unwary or the less dogged when it comes to complaining. 

Sometimes you don’t really need to do very much and that is when the frown becomes a smile.

I wrote earlier about our recent trip on the Hurtigruten ferry along the Norwegian coast into the Arctic Circle.  Despite just a brief glimpse of the Northern Lights we had a fabulous trip.  But it didn’t start so well.......

Number One Husband and I are notorious for being exceptionally early for everything. Miss a plane or train – doesn’t happen to us.

We arrived at Gatwick Airport for our flight to Bergen long before we needed to – lots of time to have a leisurely breakfast – and as we walk to the empty check-in desk I am composing an amusing text to our children about being so early that no one else was there.  We were somewhat stunned to find that the flight had just closed – at 8.15.  Our paperwork said 10.40.  We were shown to an information desk where we found another couple with the same problem.  Over the course of the next hour sixteen of us assembled (known from then on as the Gatwick Sixteen). They contacted Hurtigruten who agreed that they had given us the wrong paperwork.  These were their actions:

-        Immediately £20 in cash each to get some breakfast
-        return at 1100 to be transferred by coach to Heathrow
-        rebooked on a flight at 2000 (OK not my most fun day)
-        coach waiting to take us to the ship (we were promised they would not   sail without us)
-        dining room kept open so we could have a meal
-        a bottle of wine in the cabin (value about £36)
-        a letter of explanation and apology with a cheque for £100 each this week (not just a credit for a future trip which some travel companies do).

Apart from a hassle at the start and although it was not how we were planning to spend the first afternoon of our holiday it was dealt with efficiently, politely and blame accepted right from the start.

I recommend them.

Friday 11 April 2014

Are you Charged?

The grammar isn’t wonderful and the meaning a bit obtuse but that was the cry that went up several times a day during a very happy Christmas holiday with our Swiss family several years ago.  There were eleven of us – nine with cell phones, tablets and computers – all needing charging regularly. The house was built many decades ago when having two power points in a room was considered generous.  So as each gadget was charged, another was plugged in and so the cry went up – are you charged? Can I charge?

Matters can only get worse but the main point of this blog is why can’t the manufacturers agree on one type of connector?  At one point having an iphone, ipod and ipad meant that you could use the same charging cable but the new ipad now has a different one.  So when we pack to go away we need cables for our phones (two), tablets (two) ipods (whew only one) and computer – oh yes not to forget the Kindle – only one. Soon my carry on bag will consist only of cables and plugs......

Have been a bit dilatory with the blog – just back from a wonderful trip on the Hurtigruten ferry up and down the Norwegian coast – breathtaking scenery, fascinating history, interesting people, delicious fish, learned a lot about Norway but sadly only a glimpse of the Northern Lights.  I believe, had we been in Essex we would have had a great view......