Monday, August 31, 2009

The Festival de St Loup

So, about this trip to France...

It has taken a long while to write this post, for three reasons: I have been really busy, it is a really long post, and the first drafts contained some contentious material that I wasn't sure how best to handle. In the end, I have dropped this material, which has shortened the whole considerably.

The bus for France left at 6am on the Sunday morning, which necessitated getting up at 4 to get ready. This was just on my threshold for "is it worth even going to bed?", and in fact went beyond it when I found myself up later than expected completing my packing. Still, I did go to bed, and woke up feeling not at all refreshed. Little did I know that that would actually be the least tired I would feel all week.

The journey down proceeded well. We made good time, we didn't suffer any breakdowns, there were no notably bouts of travel-sickness, and all was good. I put my head down into my first book, and that was that. The ferry was fairly nice, but also mostly unremarkable - I have used ferries exactly like it before, and they are invariably much the same. The dinner was very expensive, but a reasonable spaghetti bolognese, and the after dinner entertainment was sufficiently inoffensive.

In the middle of the night, I was rather rudely awoken by one of the members of the band who was panicked by a desperate need to find the toilet, coupled with a complete inability to see in the pitch black. Unfortunately, once this was sorted out I was awake, as I would be for the day. So, I got up, and went for a wander. Then, breakfast on the ferry, which was both overpriced and deeply unpleasant. (Slimy scrambled eggs, lukewarm microwaved sausages, limp microwaved bacon. Not good.)

For the journey through France, the driver requested that I sit up front to help with the road signs, by virtue of my being the only person in the party with any noticeable ability to speak French. After a brief battle with our printout of instructions from the internet, and another brief battle with the satnav, we resorted to the use of a book of maps, and were quickly on our way.

We got to Guingamp, and were quickly confounded by the signs, which were numerous but also too small to read until after the decision of where to go next had had to be made. Eventually, we saw a tourist information office, and we went to ask for directions. Then to the town hall, to meet our contact.

However, he wasn't there. And, when I explained who we were, and that we were there for the festival, I was met with some rather unsettling blank looks. Had I not explained correctly? Were we in the wrong place? What was going on? So, I tried again to explain that we had to meet our contact at the town hall. Only, I found there was a key French word I couldn't remember: just what was the French for 'rendezvous'?

At length, we got the message across, they called our contact, and he came to meet us, together with our official interpreter for the week, a youth by the name of Raphael. Alas, our contact didn't speak great English, but that was okay because between his English and my French we were able to sort things out. And so, off to our accommodation!

We were staying in a former boarding house, in a wing containing lots of rooms. Most of the rooms were singles, which meant I was relieved to avoid sharing. Slightly more off-putting was the total lack of keys for the door locks (which, in the event, didn't matter; still, I wasn't too happy at this), and also a lack of seats on the toilets. Yes, we had to try to hover for the week!

We got settled in, then had lunch (traditional French fare; it was quite nice, but some of the kids had difficulty with the food all week), then a short practice, and then off to our first parade of the week. For the bus trip to that parade we were asked to provide a lift to one of the other bands, a Spanish youth band with whom several members of our band established something of a rapport.

The pattern of the week was then established: each day we were essentially free during the day, with an early breakfast and a lunch provided, but at 5:30 we would take part in a parade. After this, we would head back home for dinner, and then we would be free in the evenings. Various entertainments were available in the town, and as performers we were issued with access-all-areas passes. Also, there was beer.

The parades were also pretty much of a muchness. The bands would each be given a position in the parade, which would change each day. We would then march down the main street, before scattering to a parade at one of the local pubs (that were sponsoring the event). We played there for a while, then stopped for a complimentary beer, before resuming our march up to the Sports Bar, which was one of the primary sponsors, where all the bands would gather and play a little, and then have a complimentary beer.

In the Sports Bar, it was quite typical for the bands to each play a little. The fare was a traditional number from the region in question, frequently involving song and dance. The Spaniards, for example, had their own regional anthem that they performed several times. In response, therefore, we played our own very traditional Scottish tune, featuring a formalised dance, and ancient lyrics...

You put your left leg in,
your left leg out,
in, out, in, out,
shake it all about...

And that, essentially, was the week. The weather was very hot, and often sunny, which was nice. The town was really quite lovely, being built in a very old and traditional style. And, as I found when I went to Italy with my previous band, everyone was very friendly. That said, very few people could speak English, which created some problems...

At our stop in the middle of the first parade, our pipe major called me over. He had been speaking to Raphael, and it had become apparent that our interpreter didn't actually speak very good English. So, it fell to me to interpret for our interpreter. Excellent. But there was worse to come: one of the things we had hoped to do was to go play for the local football team on the Friday. The pipe major had asked out contact to look into this, but did Raphael know if it had actually been set up? Well, Raphael didn't know. There was a pause. Would we like him to go ask?

Well, it turned out that Raphael didn't ask. And, in fact, he pretty much disappeared after that point - he was frequently absent, he didn't speak to anyone in any language, and he was basically of little use. I think he probably just wasn't the right person for the job at all - some kid on a summer job, but who just wasn't really suited to dealing with the needs of a band of rowdy Scots. Or something.

The upshot was that I became the unofficial interpreter for the group. I translated newspaper articles (we starred regularly in the paper - they did like the kilt in Guingamp), I negotiated in shops, and I dealt with directions regularly. And, as all the information started to pass through me, I also seemed to drift into the role of unofficial team leader, which was slightly unfortunate. Still, it seemed to work reasonably well.

On the Thursday, we went on our one and only trip, to Mont St Michel. This proved to be a very long journey there, followed by a short stop in the town, and then a long journey back to attend the parade. A slight waste of time, but still better than nothing. (If we do this trip again, I'm going to advocate setting up some trips in advance. We couldn't do it this time because we didn't know the full format of the week, but now we do, and can prepare better.)

It was also at the trip to Mont St Michel that the issues with Raphael became known to the team of interpreters, because at the time we were ready to leave, he was nowhere to be seen. And so, the interpreter for the Spaniards acted as guide for both bands. The only problem there was that she spoke really good Spanish and, of course, French, but very little English. This meant she could only speak to me... and yet, she was of considerably more use to us than young Raphael.

Actually, there were three members of the team of interpreters. The third was Anne-Marine, who was a multi-lingual teacher, and who spoke really good English. For the weekend, she provided me with a detailed itinerary of what we had to do and when. Unfortunately, she was very busy looking after another band, and taking part in a dance display at the weekend, and so wasn't around much.

This left Marina, who turned out to be the most useful of the three, despite not speaking English. From the Thursday on, she made sure to keep me informed of what we needed to do, and where, and when. Which was good. She was also quite lovely - blessed with a smile that seemed to light things up, and she smiled a lot. A couple of the guys in the band expressed a certain jealousy at my ability to speak French, and so chat her up. (Bit of a nuisance that, actually - when I explained that I am spoken for, they returned with the inevitable refrain, "what happens in France, stays in France." I elected not to bother explaining the flaw in this thinking, and just ignored them.)

Anyway, that was the week. At one point, we considered going swimming, but when people heard that they would have to get swimming caps and (horrors!) wear trunks rather than swimming shorts, they elected not to bother.

Oh, actually, it's not quite. Remember how we'd asked Raphael to find out about the football, and he didn't bother? Well, we decided to go and play anyway. So, we showed up at the stadium (Raphael in tow), and set up and played a bit for the crowd as they went in. Then, I was dispatched to go and speak to security about the possibility of playing in the stadium. Naturally, I was to explain that it was all arranged, and surely it would be fine? (This task was made considerably easier by my reaching the gate just as three local youths did, youths who spoke really good English. After complimenting me on my French, they then helped haggle with the security guard, and we were in!)

So, we played on the pitch before the match, and again at half time. It was excellent. The match itself wasn't great, being a no-score draw, but the experience was quite good. At one point during the first half, the 'casuals' turned en masse towards us, and started chanting, "Scotland! Scotland!" Which was nice.

Raphael, meanwhile, must have weighed up this situation, decided he was going to get in a heap of trouble for being unable to control these crazy Scots, and fled in terror. Poor guy.

As I have alluded to previously, things were a bit different at the weekend. On the Saturday, we were taken to the nearby village of Pabu, where we played a very short parade, followed by ten minutes in the street for the locals. There was then a reception with the local luminaries, including the mayor. For this, we were asked to nominate two people to go forward to receive a medal of friendship from the town (nice), which would have been the Pipe Major and myself, except that they then specified one male and one female. So, I was let off. This proved to be particularly amusing when the local committee member asked if they could say a few words...

Saturday's evening parade was then slightly earlier than usual, after which we were taken to dinner in a school in the town (I wasn't impressed by that one). For that, I had changed into my other kilt, and looked positively dashing as a result. It's actually quite surprising the difference between the green and the red, more than I would have expected. The reason for this is that in the evening, after the dinner, there was to be the Fest Noz (night festival), the Breton equivalent of a ceilidh, something I had been looking forward to all week.

But, would the king of the ceilidh and the master of the barn dance prove similarly adept at the fest noz?

Well, it turned out that the answer was 'no', although not for the reasons I had feared. I had expected the format to be very similar - there would be lots of couples dances (so I could just copy the people in front), and also a Caller (albeit in French) explaining the dances.

But, alas, there was not. In the forty-five minutes I lasted before I gave up, there was a grand total of one couples dance (which I duly danced, with moderate success). The rest of the time seemed to be taken up with an endless repetition of a single dance involving everyone in a big long chain, with pointless shuffling steps and crazy hand movements. I tried it once, but wasn't very good. Also, there was no Caller, in any language. It seems everyone just knew what they were about.

It was all very weird. Eventually I gave up, and went to the pub instead.

The Sunday was a very long day. In the morning, we had to head down to the town to play a short performance on one of the stages. Then lunch, followed by a parade down to the town centre. This parade seemed suddenly to stop dead for forty minutes, and then was suddenly over almost before it starter - we would later hear that someone had taken a bad fall, had had to be taken to hospital, and that the parade had been rerouted as a result.

We were then free for a while, although there was a solo piping competition that two guys in the band entered (including our Pipe Major). Naturally, five minutes before he was due to play, I was grabbed, and told we were expected to be playing on the stage at any minute!

So, I rushed off and found an organiser. I explained the situation, and asked if it would be possible for us to switch with the next band. So, he and I went to speak to the leader of that band, and all seemed well... for about two minutes.

It turned out that we hadn't switched with the band that were to go on after us, but the band that was to go on before. Oops! (Although, I really am sure that I explained the situation correctly. Hmm.)

Anyway, I rushed back to the guy, explained the mistake, and got us put back to our normal slot. I decided not to try to get us pushed back further, not wanting to push my luck. So, instead I had to get the band together, quickly tune up, and go on without the Pipe Major. Not ideal, but not too disastrous. (In the event, he finished playing a whole minute before we had to go on, and so was able to take over. So that was another crisis averted.)

But I did get my chance to lead the band. Later that evening, there was the final parade, a shorter parade down the main street without the prospect of complementary beer at the end, and for which we were asked to play without stopping. Fair enough. However, the results of the competition were also due any minute, and so our two pipers wanted to stay for that instead. And so, for that final parade, I led the band down the street.

After the parade, there was one final reception, at which I had to serenade Madame the Mayor, with a view of getting invited back next year (I am not permitted to reveal the result of that), and then back to our accommodation to pack.

The journey home was very long and tiring, but largely uneventful. There was a pantomime on the ferry, but that was the only thing of great interest. And so, we returned.

I had a really great time in France, far better than I had expected. The band held together really well, and there wasn't even a single moment of trouble of any great note. It was quite odd becoming first the unofficial translator, and then the unofficial team lead, but it did work quite well for all that. And I had a couple of days afterwards to recover before returning to work suitably refreshed.

Unfortunately, with the weather now being as it is, I feel I really need another holiday...

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Cowal Gathering

So, we come to it at last...

I have been with the band for just over three years.

In the year I joined, we were at the tail end of the season, and we played two Majors. At Pitlochry (which I think was the European Championships) we qualified. As I had not mastered the tunes required, I dropped out of the final. We also played at Cowal, but failed to qualify.

The next two years, we only attended one Major, at Cowal. Two years ago, we qualified but came 12th in the final. Last year, we failed to qualify. (Particularly galling about that one was that I messed up the performance pretty badly, and so was largely responsible for the failure.)

As noted before, this year we attended four of the five Majors, coming 10th at the Scottish Championships, failing to qualify at the British, coming 12th in the Europeans, and missing the World Championships.

And so we come to Cowal, the climax of the season. It was also the truth for one of my goals: qualify and we achieve what I wanted to achieve for the season; fail to qualify and there would be no further chances.

It was a miserable day. The bus left at 5, which meant getting up at 3, which meant a shortage of sleep. It was cold, wet, windy, and generally unpleasant.

We went on for our qualifying performance, and played fairly badly. The start was weak, there were a number of mistakes in the first part, and then some trailing drones at the end. The one consolation I could take from it was that I, at least, had played well - it wouldn't be my fault if we failed this year.

Fortunately, despite our concerns, we successfully qualified! In fact, we qualified third out of our heat, which was a major surprise.

So, that was the job done, the minimum acceptable standard reached, and my goal for the season complete. The pressure was off for the final performance (although, there was always the dream...).

We played the final, and it was much much better than the qualifier. That said, the standard of the competition in the final is always higher, since you're playing amongst the twelve best bands there, rather than with a random selection of whoever happens to turn up.

The final result: ninth. Our best performance at a Major since I joined the band.

It would be really nice to end the story there, but alas that was not the end of our day. With the weather being as it was, with us not having anyone amongst us who hadn't done Cowal before, and with several people not having capes (big, bulky waterproofs, to keep the wind and rain off), we decided not to do the big street parade, and instead to head home early.

It was a decision I agreed with. In hindsight, I think it turned out to be the wrong one. A lot of the parents of the band were really keen to see us (or, more particularly, their individual children) doing the parade. So, as we got back to the bus, there was a lot of complaining about this decision.

But it gets worse. After waiting for several people to get back, we were left with a bus missing two. The police at this time instructed us to get moving from our car park down to the ferry. (Very odd decision that...) Anyway, off we went. Our two stragglers were contacted and told that they should not walk a mile up the hill to the car park, but instead walk a mile down the hill to meet us at the ferry (and, of course, we wouldn't board the ferry without them). Unfortunately, one of the two was absolutely livid at this, and had a real go at the bus driver for moving off without them. (While I get why he was angry, I thought this was out of order. Our driver only moved because he was ordered to do so by the police. Besides, the driver is there to do a job; he's not there to take abuse from the people he's giving a lift to.) Sadly, the consequences of this could be quite bad - we may have to exclude people from the buses in future, or we may have to find a new bus company. And, moreover, it's just wrong.

Sigh. It's funny how hindsight works - if we'd only made a decision one way rather than the other, this would have been a banner day for the band. As it was, it was distinctly mixed. Oh well. You make the best decisions you can with the information you have at the time, and if you make a mistake you try really hard not to repeat it. That's all you can do.

#40: "Thunderball", by Ian Fleming
#41: "Nineteen Eighty-Four", by George Orwell
#42: "The Spy Who Loved Me", by Ian Fleming

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Experimental Cookery Breakfasts #11: Stewed Fruit

After a long spell away from them, I have decided to apply some effort to finishing off the breakfasts chapter of Jamie's book. There are two entries remaining, one of which I tackled yesterday, and the other I intend to tackle either next Sunday or the following Saturday.

Yesterday's effort was stewed fruit, which involved selecting some fruits (actually, four of his five chosen fruits - I wasn't able to get rhubarb in anything less than a huge quantity), cutting them up, adding some sugar, and stewing for a few minutes. I had them with pancakes, which I also cooked from ingredients.

It was all rather successful, I thought. However, it is perhaps worth noting that this was not a healthy breakfast. There is an awful lot of sugar in fruit, and adding yet more meant that this was a far cry from my normal breakfast of 2 Shredded Wheat. Still, I ate late, and so combined this to form a late breakfast/early lunch, which I don't think was too bad. Plus, it was definately at least two of my five-a-day.

Anyway, that's that. After the crushing reversal of all the eggs, it was good to finally be back with a winner. The breakfasts chapter now stands at 6-5 in favour. Next up, and completing the chapter, is a "Fresh Fruit Platter".

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Experimental Cookery 'Tuesday' #49: Lasagne

One of the key outcomes of the Experimental Cookery thing is that I have been converted from using pre-processed versions of some of my favourites. When it comes to curries, chilli, and even burgers, I'm going to start making them from scratch. However, I wasn't quite converted with the fajitas - they were just too much hassle for not enough of an improvement.

And so we come to my #1 favourite: lasagne. This actually became installed as my favourite food during my stint in Yeovil, when it was one of a very small number of foods I didn't have the facility to cook myself (and one that I absolutely refused to go for the pre-processed alternative for). As such, it was something I couldn't easily have.

The selection of vegetables in the lasagne was certainly surprising. I might even say strange. Out went the mushrooms, and in came carrots and celery. As I said, strange. Still, it cooked up easily enough, being essentially the same as the Bolognese sauce from a couple of weeks ago. Sadly, there was a disaster to come...

The problem came with the blanching of the pasta sheets, which prompted them to all stick together in a horribly pasta-y mess that proved entirely impossible to separate. I have since determined that this was a completely unnecessary step (given that I had to substitute some of the now-useless pasta sheets with some unblanched ones), but it was extremely annoying at the time.

Also, Jamie's recipe calls for many more layers of pasta sheets than I am used to. This is fine, except that my lasagne dish just isn't big enough to accomodate so many layers. Fortunately, I had already weighed this up before I created a huge mess, and so only created a medium mess.

Still, never mind. It was all done, and assembled, and placed in the oven, and duly cooked. The key question, really, was as it always had been: what was the outcome?

Well, it was most definately a lasagne. It also seemed somewhat closer to the lasagne I've had in restaurants, which tends to be not quite so rigidly layered as the ones I have cooked previously (although that was somewhat by my design). However, it was not a significant improvement over what has gone before. This lasagne, at least, was insufficient to convert me away from using the jars of red and white sauce. Perhaps some other recipe will do that job better.

Still, the lasagne was good enough to count as a 'win', and so brings the score for this chapter to 6-0. The next recipe in the book is "Good Old Chilli Con Carne", which I have already tackled. After that we have a mince and onion pie. However, I might not get to that next week - I have run out of freezer tubs, and indeed space to store foods, and so may not be well placed to cook up the pie without it going to waste. Such are the perils of having a freezer filled to overflowing with delicious home-cooked foods.

Incidentally, I also picked up a copy of "Jamie's Italy" yesterday, as it was on special offer and I had had my eye on it for some time. However, I think I'll just dip in and out of that one, rather than following it in any sort of a sequence.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Time Traveller's Wife

I got back from France at 5:30 yesterday morning, and promptly went to bed. Later that day, Lady Chocolat and I went to see "The Time Traveller's Wife".

It's quite a good film, but I'm not going to recommend anyone goes to see it. Read the book instead - it is much better.

The fundamental problem is that the book is very long, very dense, and quite complex. Boiling all that down to a sub-2-hour movie is a nigh impossible task, and has resulting in some very heavy cuts to the material, to the extent that two significant secondary characters from the book are reduced to being almost entirely peripheral in the film, while a third (very important) one is removed almost entirely. Basically, it's the same problem that has affected every "Harry Potter" film since "Goblet of Fire" - there's just not enough time for everything that is essential.

In the next few days, I'll post again about my holiday in France, and also about the lasagne I cooked this evening. For now, though, I'm enjoying my last evening of freedom before going back to work.

#36: "Pathfinder: The Impossible Eye", by Greg A. Vaughan
#37: "The Pirate King", by R.A. Salvatore
#38: "Emperor: The Gods of War", by Conn Iggulden
#39: "The Book Thief", by Markus Zusak (best novel of the year to date, by the way)

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Experimental Cookery Tuesday #48: Pot Roast Meatloaf

I must confess to a certain doubt as to whether I would bother with an Experimental Cookery Tuesday this week. Being on holiday next week, I have quite a lot to do before I get to go. Furthermore, this week the recipe in the book was for meatloaf, which means you immediately know it's going to take a long time. Heck, there's probably a good five minutes of instrumental before you even really get started!

However, rules are rules, and I had promised that I'd come back to this one this week, and so when I got home I duly got out the ingredients and got to work.

The meatloaf was pretty straightforward to prepare, although it was indeed quite time consuming. That said, I've shifted to using my food processor to smash up the crackers (rather than a rolling pin), which speeds things considerably. But that didn't really help on the half-hour baking stage.

While the meatloaf was baking, I also had to put together the sauce for it, which proved to be a slightly frustrating experience of not having any pans of just the right size. That's not really Jamie's fault, though - the one I do have was in the dishwasher. Anyway, I prepped the sauce, added it to the dish, and returned it to the oven.

But, what to have with meatloaf? What would be the perfect complement? And what would provide a perfect but subtle reference?

And the answer is: cous cous, of course!

So, how was it? It turned out that the meatloaf was a massive success. It wasn't quite what I had expected, but that's fine. In fact, it was surprisingly better than the beef wellington, which I hadn't expected.

So, that's a flawless 5-0 for mince, with a couple of dishes still to go. The next one is lasagne, which should be fun. I'm planning on tackling that just after I get back from France.

#35: "Krondor: the Assassins", by Raymond Feist

Monday, August 03, 2009

Bridge of Allan Highland Games

The antepenultimate competition of the season saw the band competing at Bridge of Allan. There were eleven bands in our grade.

Our performance was very good, but was marred by a couple of fairly basic errors. However, this was also a competition where we had introduced a new piper to the mix, playing his first competition.

In the end, we came fifth, narrowly missing out on one of the prizes. However, there is a further mitigating factor at play: this marks the start of the month of August, and so some of the overseas bands have started arriving for the World Championships and the Cowal Games. These bands are generally exceptionally good, but because they don't compete at all the competitions they are stuck in Grade 4B. This has the unfortunate effect of skewing the results somewhat.

So, all in all, I'm reasonably happy with that.

#33: "Pathfinder: The End of Eternity", by Jason Nelson
#34: "Pathfinder: Bonus Bestiary", by Paizo Publishing

(July was a very productive month for books, and August looks like it will be as well. By the end of this week, I hope to have finished books #35 and #36, both of which are already in progress, and I fully expect to read at least four books the week after. Suddenly, the target of 52 for the year is looking almost easy.)