18 Aug 2011

Misguided by the Guide

Take the average holidaymaker. Give them a holiday guide. The paperback kind. What do you get? A long wondering thought... A thought that says something down the lines of how was it like before the holidaymaker and the holiday guide became an item?

'The Sleeping Gypsy' by Henri Rousseau (1897), via MoMA

Ninety seven percent of visitors to our garden preservation society come on their guide's recommendation. Whether said guide is called Guide du Routard, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides or else. Wow! That's big business! You just secretly hanker after the thought that they did a Lonely Planet guide to the cool blogs out there and hey presto yours would turn popular in no time, generating cool advertising revenue in the process and liberating you from the constraints of the day job for the lucrative joys of the dilettante!

If you titillate the inquisitive side of life like La Baguette, you'll even start wondering what happened to the spirit of holiday adventure pioneered by our elders who went on vacation before guides had been made compulsory or at least before they became diluted down the mainstream like they now have. I'm not exactly an elder, yet my idea of a holiday has never involved the safety of a guide either, telling you in different levels of subjectivity where to go, where not to go, what to see, what not to see, what to eat and what not to eat. Rather a holiday needs to conjure up an adventure, a personal experience, a trip on the edge of the unexpected in all good measure. I wouldn't be daft enough as to encourage blissful ignorance and choose to get lost in the Borneo jungle or ramble carefree across Nicaragua!

'Mist-covered valley, Corsica', by Stéphane Victor, © Lonely Planet Images 2011

With me by your side, you don't want to look like your average tourist. You make sure you take your tickets, your wallet and passport and a good map. If you wanna feel smart, maybe trek down the local library prior to departure to soak in the flavour of the place to be visited, yet generally have faith in your own streetwise approach and capabilities as an explorer and authenticity-seeker, mastering those positive energy vibes in the process! Because what would go wrong if you did miss out on that holiday guide?

A few years back I travelled to Havana, Cuba, with nothing more than a very succinct pocket guide (thirty pages of it if that, and mostly pictorial!) and just planned my stay once I was there. I didn't miss out on anything a holiday guide might offer. In fact, my days were action-packed and the only time I ever glanced at the pocket guide was on the outbound flight from London, albeit distracted by the airline entertainment on tap, from the irrelevance of Miss Congeniality to the more topical Buena Vista Social Club pet sounds seeping through my headphones.

Buena Vista Social Club, via Amazon

I repeated the pattern with California! This time I only packed two simplified fold-out downtown maps of Santa Barbara and San Francisco and bobbed down the 101 like a local, with that Californian carefreeness. When in Rome, do as the Romans do... If I wanted to see the real Cali, man, I made sure I'd stay clear of the holiday guides. Simple as.

Back to our garden preservation society, the holidaymakers I have seen lately come accompanied by the guide, whose contents they all seem so evangelical about. They know how long the visit takes, the opening hours, the highlights, the lowlights, and the rest of it. In fact some of our visitors refuse to hear our garden presentations on the pretence that their guide does it for them. Blimey! There is only a thin demarcation line between the holiday guide and the bible methinks.

'Conoco, Albuquerque' (1969) by Ernst Haas

Some 'pilgrims' go even further, following religiously the guide's recommendations. Here at 9:00am, gone at 10:00am, reaching a new destination for noon, before embarking upon a new discovery mission later in the afternoon. Military precision. I thought holidays were supposed to be fun, unpredictable and relaxed. By the look on the face of some of those 'pilgrims', this sounds more like a military campaign doubled as a tick-box exercise. The hordes of tourists end up congregating down to the same places of pilgrimage. The secret coves of yesteryear have now become interplanetary bases, and the quiet country lanes have morphed into crowd-surfing spots, with our guys holding their guides to their hearts. At least - for once - it's not their Blackberries!

Meanwhile the locals have had to source new out-of-bound places that they keep to themselves for peaceful enjoyment, only until the next publication. As for the guided tourists, are they not simply putting themselves at risk of being misguided by those very guides they so religiously follow? By seeking to be smart, have they not simply just given up on any spirit of adventure, exploration and opinion, even kudos? In other words, how much is too much information, especially when handed to you on a plate? And after all, is ignorance not bliss? Hmm... So then... free yourself from the guide corseting your every move, and start living your holiday instead. Here's a sure first step towards freedom!

9 Aug 2011

I Want to Believe

I work in a customer-facing environment and I get to meet individuals from all walks of life on a daily basis, and especially more so right now, during the tourist season. The other day a lady tourist came down to the boutique. She was charming and she was charmed. In fact, she was entranced by Corsica, the beauty and variety of the scenery, the idyllic landscapes, the choice in places to visit and explore, the wilderness always - it seems - a stone's throw away. "It's lovely!", she kept on saying, carrying on with herself.

Aliens reached cult status thanks to The X-Files (image source)

I'd been pretty silent all the way through, occasionally nodding in approval. And then I don't know what got me but I broke her dream. Maybe I was only trying to be honest but it came out wrong, maybe it just wasn't my day, maybe it even had something to do with the time of the month, but I just spoilt if for her, and in retrospect I wish I hadn't.

In the conversation I casually mentioned the winters known to be deceptively long and drab. I went on a quick rant about the state of the roads, the slow post, the lack of retail choice, the scarcity of employment opportunities... As if this weren't enough, I went on complaining about the sudden power cuts and power surges that knacker many a domestic appliance (in my parents' case, a washing-machine and a flat TV set this year alone!). The outdated electricity network in this part of the island whose domestic output barely scrapes over 203 volts on a good day, and which paralyses an already slow broadband internet connection. I could have illustrated this with how an average blog update would have taken me half an hour back in the UK, while it routinely takes me up to 4 hours here. Four hours! Talk about devotion.

'Corsica Corte', by M.C. Escher (1929), via WikiPaintings

While I was at it, I was going to have a go at the water supply too. Instead I just suddenly fell silent. The look on the lady's face made me stop. She was looking at me like a rabbit caught in the headlights, gawping. "Yes but... Yes but..." She turned hesitantly towards her husband who'd remained silent throughout our consecutive monologues, and then she turned back towards me and ventured in a murmur, clutching at her straw hat: "Yes but... but it's lovely here! It's lovely though, isn't it?" I had to save the day, her day. So I just smiled, cracked a joke and nodded in approval when she forced a smile.

Yes but... dear readers! Faced with this textbook case of grass being greener, of this beautiful tourist candour, of tourist under the spell of the place they came to visit (and we all fall victim to this ourselves as tourists at least once in a lifetime), and in my humble defence, I must add that loveliness is sometimes not enough. I communicated this in my own way to the lady but this taught me one good lesson in return: to shatter a tourist's dream and their idea of perfection will in no way restore any sense of that already elusive loveliness!

7 Aug 2011

July in Bloom

Welcome to La Baguette's latest feature: 'A Month in Bloom', which debuted in our February edition. At the end of each month, this blog will showcase a gallery of floral blossoms of the wild order encountered during that month on random walks around my current base in Northern Corsica.

An ode to immortality: Helichrysum italicum
In this part of the island July was hot, only slightly cooled down by a 5-day windy spell, a couple of overcast days and even the odd heavy shower. The humidity levels interspersed with dry heat wreaked havoc on cultures, in particular tomatoes, and also fostered infestations. Sadly yet predictably the high winds encouraged the odd scrub fire across the island, and closer to home too. Firemen patrols were on red alert and the overall damage has been 'contained', although hazard will remain until the back end of September.

Botanists and flora lovers at large won't have found as much satisfaction in July as they would have in Spring when the diversity of Corsican wild flowers will have put on a fabulous show of colours and contrasts. Comparatively July looked rather bland on the floral front and one will have to be patient until next Spring in order to re-live the Corsican floral jamboree!

Beauty secret: Helichrysum italicum
Having said that, it would be fair to mention the likes of Helichrysum italicum, otherwise commonly known as immortelle in French. Helichrysum flowers in late June, in the form of stemmed clumps of bright yellow blossoms found on exposed sunny rocksides, mostly by (but not restricted to) the seaside. In July, the yellow blossoms turn gold as they dry up, fragrancing the air with their distinctive aroma. Helychrisum is one of the plants that contribute to the so-distinctive Corsican maquis fragrance, that very fragrance that kinds of hit you as you step off the aeroplane in airfields across the island.

In skincare, helichrysum was to the noughties what green tea and tea tree oil were to the 90s, with its success showing no sign of waning thereafter. Helichrysum extract is used, not only by French skincare specialists L'Occitane, Corsican skincare firms Réalia, Imiza and Les Simples & Divines, and by dermatologists, to correct skin blemishes, but also to soften wrinkles, soothe sunburns and even bruises! Talk about a miracle in a jar!

In the spotlight: Helichrysum italicum
Another plant fondly associated with Corsican riches is Myrtus communis (myrtle). The shrub is a component of the medium-height maquis, usually found in a tight embrace with nearby shrubs like viburnum, heather and strawberry trees. Its white flowering comes out in late June/ early July and resembles that of the hawthorn, with a delicate fragrance to boot. Although not edible as such, myrtle berries are used to make a strong brandy and nowadays are making a foray into Corsican delicatessen, nouvelle cuisine style (myrtle-flavoured salt, chocolate with myrtle berries).

Yet July is much more than those two cultural heavyweights of helichrysum and myrtle. Open those peepers wide, scratch the surface of the Corsican Summer landscape and you'll start finding a flower or two that's also noteworthy. Go for a wander and it won't be long until you spot Verbascum or Saponaria by the roadside, or down the embankment. Crithmum maritimum, another cosmetology darling, is also making a splash, by the seaside.

Pilar of society: Myrtle
Rejoice, we've just proved our point: despite first impressions it's not that lonely on the Corsican flower front this side of Summer! And remember to join us next month to find out whether August was a close contender!

Harking back to Spring: Saponaria
Seaside companion: Crithmum maritimum
Out in the open: Common Chicory
High and yellow: Verbascum nigrum

2 Aug 2011

Hot Summer Cool! (Part 3)

We know what you did last Summer, La Baguette! You discovered Brax via the German mail-order upmarket fashion company Peter Hahn, and haven't looked back since! Now dear readers, you may or may not be already familiar with the brand, yet either way it is highly likely that its tailored yet incredibly comfortable casualwear will become a favourite of yours in no time. Brax does for a flattering fit with a touch of exclusivity. The timeless appeal of the clothing ranges and the quality of fabric and stitch will allow for a look that lasts the distance, both in time and usage.

Part of the Brax Golf 'Essential Powder 2' look
With a brand like Brax that wears its feelgood factor on its sleeve, you can't really go wrong. We are talking also about a brand that you won't be at risk of spotting on every street corner, unlike the Mangoes and the H&Ms of this world... Rest assured, you needn't be a golf club member in order to achieve the preppy look on display here via the 'Brax Golf' collection. And Brax is not solely about conservative pastel colour schemes, it also likes to throw in the odd surprise party, with bursts of bright colour and even a last-minute fashion detail or two!

Part of the Brax Feel Good 'Laura' look
Now then ladies, this Summer you can either miss the boat by sticking to your LBD (little black dress) or high-street retail copycat fashion, or lead the way with Pain de Sucre, Little Marcel and Brax, amongst so many many other cool niche brands out there! Renowned for living the lifestyle with attitude, there is no doubt which road La Baguette will be travelling down! Happy shopping!

Part of the Brax Golf 'Green Sport 3' look
Part of the Brax Golf 'Sweet Pastels' look