Autumn trees 5 – cycling in Austria, how come?

I’m presently cycling from Passau, the last town in Germany, through Austria, towards Vienna. Right now I’m in Melk, a town with an imposing striped abbey on a cliff above the town, where cruise boats pull in just like at Kotor, that I’d never heard of before.

This ride is the latest link in something I’ve been doing for a while. I’m going to explain about that; so today, there aren’t any trees. If it’s boring, skip it – the next blog will be about the ride itself.

One weekend in April 2008 I cycled out from our house, in Brussels, to Arlon at the other, south-easterly, end of Belgium. From there I have mostly walked (with a bit of cycling) to Eferding in Upper Austria. Fourteen trips and forty-seven days, via Schengen, Saarbrucken, Wissembourg, Karlsruhe, Stuttgart, Ulm, Donauworth, Ingoldstadt and Passau.

There are a few gaps in my route. One hot day in Lorraine, the dog Biscuit couldn’t walk any further. We took a taxi 10 km to Bitche. At Karlsruhe, I took the funicular up the hill east of the city, for fun. And for train-timetable reasons I once restarted the walk not at Münchmunster in Bavaria, but at a another station nearby. Otherwise it is a continuous line.

When you do something as big as this, I suppose it’s normal to forget why you’re doing it.

I can think of three possible reasons:

  • I am glad that my work takes me all over Europe. But it is generally to capital cities. This is about the places in between.
  • I like Richard Long’s work. I like to imagine my route as a line, a cross-section of Europe. That line exists because I made it.
  • From the beginning, I wanted to take photographs of the route, and to write about it at the same time.

Just like my current efforts to learn Russian, there’s a fourth reason. Now I’ve started, I want to do it until it is done.

When will it be done?

I was inspired by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A time of gifts. Following him, I thought of walking to Istanbul. (He calls it Constantinople. Is this a generational term? I remember one of my grandmother’s jokes: Constantinople is a very long word. Spell it.  – the answer is i, t.)

So I’ve been aiming southeast. But I’ve modulated the route for reasons of linguistic incompetence. French is the only foreign language I really speak. After a discouraging couple of days in Germany, entering from Luxembourg at Schengen, I jumped back into France, finally crossing into Germany only when I had to, at France’s almost-most-easterly point, Wissembourg.

I then had to use German, of which I have some rudiments and am picking up some more. So now I’m in the German-speaking lands, I’m staying in them as far east as possible. For some time, therefore, I’ve been heading for Vienna, the most easterly German-speaking city.

These choices have put a bit more east into my route.

Now, I’m trying to learn Russian. This makes me inclined, after Vienna, to carry on through Slovakia (where a Slavic language is spoken) rather than Hungary (almost sui generis, linguistically, and supposed to be hard).

That means I seem to be heading east, towards Ukraine and Russia, not southeast.

Recently, therefore, when people have asked where I’m walking to, I’ve said Vladivostok.

But I can’t walk. I have a bad knee. My dashing doctor told that I can, at least, cycle. I prefer walking; but, if this is how it is to be from now on, my chances of reaching Vladivostok have increased.

Autumn trees 4 (Paris) – and a French game (Citadelles)

Last week I went to Paris for a couple of days for work. It is the city of the plane tree, they are on every boulevard.

plane trees champ de mars Paris 1018.JPG

I wanted a shot of the whole of the Eiffel tower and the whole of a plane tree, but could not get it with my narrow angle lens. There were fine silver birch too. I saw none of the other trees I’m looking out for.

silver birch and plane trees Paris 1018.JPG

For the first time this autumn I saw a tree whose leaves were gone.

leafless tree Paris 1018.JPG

My Travelling Companion and I ate a couple of meals at a café in the shadow of the elevated metro.

elevated metro Dupleix Prolongations restaurant Paris 1018 2.JPG

The quality and variety of the food was as good as you’d get in Belgium – razor clams, for example – the style wasn’t half as posh. My theory that ordinary restaurant food in Belgium is better than in France has been shaken. The café had a notice: In order not to inconvenience our neighbours, customers on the terrace are requested not to sing or shout. (After 2230.)

At a game shop near the Ile de la Cité I bought an expanded version of Bruno Faidotti’s great game, Citadelles. I gave it a spin while eating an omelette nature in a café nearby.

PH playing Citadelles Paris 1018.JPG

Hireable electric scooters are here too.

man electric scooters Paris 1018.JPG

Autumn trees 3 (Bucharest, Vienna and London) – and a game about European history (Pax Renaissance)

street near hotel Vienna 1018.JPG(Vienna)

I visited Bucharest, Vienna and London the week before last on a round trip by plane, tugging along my little suitcase. What is it that permits air travel to be so unpleasant? Why don’t train companies stuff their carriages with tiny seats? Why don’t the operators of stations force you to walk, on a winding and inefficient route, through a shop full of shiny tat, if you want to get to the platform? Why don’t providers of city transport charge more if you’re going to or from the railway station? (€4,50 in Brussels, 9 lei in Bucharest, €12 in Vienna, £22 in London)

But I’m getting off the subject.

I hadn’t been to Bucharest before. I believe that in the 90s it was used as the set of a British TV series of Maigret stories, pre-war Paris no longer being present in Paris itself. I liked the warm colours and inventive balconies of the older buildings that remain:

old house Bucharest 1018.JPG

flats Bucharest 1018 102.JPG

and the 70s buildings too:

office building EU flag Bucharest 1018.JPG

intercontinental hotel Bucharest 1018 3.JPG

(This is where our conference was. A colleague’s parents were married there.)

The many street and park trees in the city centre were part of this warmth. I visited a shady churchyard. Out of open church doors came Orthodox singing. There was a bell dated 1856 inscribed in German and Greek, and two wide plane trees in good leaf.

plane trees churchyard Bucharest 1018.JPG

The notices in front of the trees tells us, in Romanian, that this tree is protected, it is resistant to pollution (which explains their popularity as city trees) and can reach a diameter of 2 metres and an age of 300 years. I wonder how old these two are.

I also saw quite a few silver birch, with half or so their leaves gone, and silver birch and oaks as park trees. But no hollyhocks or horse chestnuts (not a single one, except the one that overhangs our garden, in all this set of investigations).

silver birch Bucharest 1018.JPG

Cars parked freely on pavements. Street design seemed to favour the car. I saw no bus lanes.

cat badly parked cars Bucharest 1018.JPG

I had a haircut in Mr Blade the Barbershop. It cost 40 lei = €9. I ate fried pressed cheese and garlicky mashed beans in a restaurant where late Johnny Cash played on a loop. In the suburbs, electricity cables were slung between telegraph poles. Sometimes they were hung about with ivy.

cables vegetation Bucharest 1018.JPG

I flew on to Vienna. The city centre buildings felt heftier, portlier, while street trees were half hearted. The leaves of the plane trees that I saw were drying.

transport pedestrian gay stop sign Vienna 1018.JPG

Out of sight, though, behind the 18thcentury “Palais” which was the venue for the event I attended, was a calm garden with grass and gravel paths and big trees. A rose still bloomed.

garden Auersberg Palais Vienna 1018 trees.JPG

(There were two plane trees and two silver birch in the garden, but this picture gives the idea of the place best.)

In the early mornings there was a taste of autumn in the air. In a city with more trees I think I would have smelled it too.

At a book reading I met a Romanian student whose parents are Hungarian-speaking.  She went to a German school in which the language of the playground was Romanian. She didn’t know how to answer the question, What is your mother tongue? To help her someone had said, In what language would you keep a journal? Reflecting on this, for a few days I tried keeping my journal in French, the foreign language I speak least badly. I can write most of the things in French that I would write in English, but I don’t like it when I do. Even though I add in some twiddly bits (il semble que l’on, for example, rather than il sombre qu’on), the sentences still come across as too short. And it takes me twice as long. I’ve reverted to English.

A week or two ago, two city electric scooter clubs launched in Vienna. I saw the scooters everywhere. You leave it where you want; people come at night to put them back where they live.

electric scooters metro Vienna 1018.JPG

Respecting local culture, I would wait at the kerb until the green pedestrian light showed, even if it was safe to cross on red. It irked me. The lights themselves made me laugh, though.

transport pedestrian gay go sign Vienna 1018.JPG

I know London better than Bucharest and Vienna. The city centre was busy the first day I was there, so there wasn’t much chance to think about trees.

plane trees public writing FIGHT THE AGENTS OF CHAOS HALT BREXIT People's Vote demonstration London 1018.JPG

The next day, Sunday, I visited suburbs in north London. I can confirm that, as in the cliché, they are leafy:

planes East Finchley 1018.JPG

In East Finchley we visited Cherry Tree Park. I didn’t find the cherry trees but liked this oak:

white oak tree Cherrytree park East Finchley 1018.JPG

It was only in Bucharest that I had a chance to play a game – Pax Renaissance, by Phil Eklund.

Pax Renaissance Bucharest 1018 1.JPG

It is about trade, government and religion at the end of the 15th century. London and Vienna both feature on the map, as does a city on the Black Sea called “Bielograd” which I decided could be considered to be in Romania.

In my last blog I wrote about the names of trees in different languages. I said that”

In French a horse chestnut… is a “marronier”; but a non-horse chestnut tree is a “châtaigne”, though its fruits are “marrons”

Marie P. says, however, that it is more complicated than this:

Marronnier is effectively the word for the tree which produces non-edible fruits which we call marrons (non-edible but so shiny and pretty! I always pick a big nice one on the first day they fall down and keep it all winter in my bag!).

The other one is called Chataigner and that’s where the subtlety is. Its fruits are called “marrons” when they are sold on the streets – in winter you can hear “maaarcho” (actually “marrons chauds”) yelled by the guys who sell them – when they are sweet – as in marrons glaces or crème de marrons – but if you order a dish of meat… the thing will then probably be called “châtaignes” (which is a bit more posh). Don’t ask me the rule – I have no clue, because you will say un gâteau aux châtaignes but un Mont-blanc aux marrons…

Sorry for being so complicated and making life hard to non-French!!

No need to apologise, Marie, this brings me only joy. Now, does anyone know, is the plural of silver birch silver birch?

Autumn trees 2 (Châtelaillon-Plage, France) and a French game (Hoche et la lutte pour l’Alsace, 1793)

plane tree from train Chatel 1018.JPG

Last weekend we went to Châtelaillon-Plage, a seaside resort in western France. The sun shone.

sunset Chatel 1018.JPG

(I looked out over the Bay of Biscay at sunset, and imagined, as I always do, Christopher Priest’s protagonists in Inverted World coming to a dead end here.)

Châtelaillon was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century. It has plane trees in abundance, in avenues. Their leaves seemed tattier, further on, than those I saw by the Liffey in Dublin last week.

plane trees Chatel 1018 2.JPG

This region is known for hollyhocks. They are a symbol of the Ile de Ré, not far away. As in Brussels the previous week, some were still in flower. Others had been cut back for the winter.

hollyhockChatel 1018 2.JPG

I didn’t see any oaks, horse chestnuts or silver birches. I saw trees that you don’t see further north. This shapely one – whatever it is – is common:

tree Chatel 1018.JPG

I looked up in four languages the names of the five species I am looking out for. I supposed that trees get named early in the evolution of their language, and that as a result, their names differ a lot. It turned out not to be so.

 English French German Russian
plane platane Platane платан (platan)
oak chêne Eiche дуб (doub)
silver birch bouleau argenté Weißbirke белая береза (belaya bereza)
horse chestnut marronier Rosskastanie конский каштан (konsky kashtan)
hollyhock (rose) trémière Malve штокроза розовая (shtokrosa rozaya)

None of these plants has a distinctive name in each one of these languages.

“Plane” is recognisably the same in each.

“Oak”, “Eiche” and “chêne” sound like they have a common root – only Russian’s “doub” sounds different.

(Last month my Travelling companion and I visited the war memorials of Ypres, in Belgium. The unmajestic German cemetary is planted with oaks.)


The word for birch begins with “b” in each of the languages. In English and French they are  “silver”; in German and Russian, more logically to my eyes, they are “white”.

The “chestnut” part of “horse chestnut” is similar in English,  German (“kastanie”) and Russian (“kashtan”). In French a horse chestnut is something different, it is a “marronier”; but a non-horse chestnut tree is a “châtaigne”, though its fruits are “marrons”

As for the “horse” part, I have tended to think that this word  in English has two senses, the second of which (horse fly, horseradish, horse latitudes) means something like “special kind of” and has nothing to do with large, long-legged, domesticated animals. But if that is so, why is the first word in “horse chestnut” in Russian (конский ) clearly related to one of that language’s words for “horse” in first sense (конь)? And why does Google Translate tell us that Ross is also a word for horse, seemingly in that sense, in German?

By contrast, the different languages’ names for hollyhocks are rather diverse. There’s still one commonality: French sees something rose-like in hollyhocks, while Russian insists on it – штокроза розовая means “rosy stockrose”.

I didn’t just look at trees in Châtelaillon, though.

I ate moules marinières, fish soup, a “méli-mélo” of frogs’ legs and langoustines, and some crumbly Cantal cheese.  (Not all in one meal).

The méli-mélo was served on a terrace with a plane tree growing out of the decking:

plane tree decking terrace Chatel 1018.JPG

My game of the weekend was “Hoche et la lutte pour l’Alsace, 1793”. Lazare Hoche was a brilliant general in his twenties (like Napoleon a year or two later). In the campaign this game depicts, his army threw Austrian and Prussian armies out of Alsace.

PH game Hoche Chatel 1018.JPG

I’ve been to the land shown on the game’s map. A few years ago I walked with our old Jack Russell, Biscuit, from Bitche, across the Vosges, where every pub was called the White Horse, across the border into Germany at Wissembourg and down, dogged by a cold, to the Rhine at Wörth.

I think the game works well.

Each turn represents a day; the game lasts from 19 November to 31 December. I got one day done last weekend: it’s going to take a while to play.

On the way back from Châtelaillon we changed trains at La Rochelle. I went for a walk in the Parc de la Gare. There was an overcast breeziness. The big, tree-shaped plane trees in the park look good; but they were not even as leafy as their pollarded (is that the right word?) siblings in Châtelaillon.

On the train back it started to rain. On Niort station platform the rain splashed up like goose pimples. Later I saw some spindly silver birch by the side of the track. I was too slow to get them in a picture.

Autumn 1 – trees (Brussels and Dublin) – and Inis, an Irish game

heads bank pub Dublin 1018.JPG(Bank pub, College Green, Dublin)

I’m going to be travelling a bit in Europe in the next few weeks, and I thought about doing some more blogging. Autumn seems like something to look into. My Non-travelling companion laughed. The most autumnal thing about autumn is the leaves, she said, and you can’t tell the difference between red, brown and green. Even yellow you can only tell on a good day.

(It’s true. I like being colourblind, most of the time, but I suspect that at this time of year I’m missing something.)

As a fallback, then, I’m going to look not at the leaves but at the trees, see how particular types of tree differ as the weeks go by and from one place to another.

On Wednesday (10 October), though, looking out of the bus window on the way to Brussels airport for a work trip to Dublin, I realised that I am not much better at trees than at colours.

tree bus Schuman-airport 1018.JPG

What’s this, for example?

We must have passed more than thirty types of tree during the forty minute journey. I only recognised two of them:

plane trees bus Schuman-airport 1018 3.JPG

plane trees (in the picture) and silver birch.

So I’m going to look out for those two – and also for oak trees, horse chestnuts (though I think I will only recognise them by their conkers) and hollyhocks.

horse chestnut tree over our garden 1018.JPG(This horse chestnut stands over our garden. My Non-travelling companion says it is losing its leaves early because it is sick.)

Hollyhock rue cornet 1018.JPG(This hollyhock, in a street near where I work in Brussels, pleased me by still having flowers.)

On the bus from the airport into Dublin on Wednesday night it was dark.

palm trees Dublin 1018.JPG

When I got off in the city centre I could only see palm trees.

plane tree Dublin 1018 2.JPG

On Thursday morning, though, there were plane trees along the canalised banks of the Liffey. They seemed less far on, in losing their leaves, than those I’d seen in Brussels.

Then on the bus back to the airport I saw silver birch outside flats on Dorset Street Upper…

silver birch Dublin 1018.JPG… and my first oak trees, out near Dublin City University.

oak tree Dublin 1018.JPG

By now, I suspect you are thinking, is  he really going to spend the whole autumn rabbiting on about foliage?

Have no fear!

I’m also going to try and play, in each place I go to, a board game set in that place. Easy start in Ireland. The best game shop in Dublin, according to Boardgamegeek, was right opposite the conference hotel. I bought a good-looking game called Inis, set in the Celtic mists of time, and played it at the airport and again when I got home.


Some things in Dublin reminded me of Britain. For example, when cars turned from a main road into a side road they acted as if they had priority over pedestrians crossing the side road. On the bus back to the airport we crossed a canal with a narrowboat-sized lock.

Other things seemed more American. A sign in a shop window said 50c rather than €0,50. A sign in the conference hotel showed the way to the rest rooms.

And some seemed neither. Widespread, easy-click availability of the internet. The Irish language appearing first on street signs.

A final harbinger of autumn in Dublin was the first Halloween display I’ve seen this year in Europe:

Halloween temple bar Dublin 1018.JPG

(But what about this, in a supermarket in Seattle in August. August!):

Halloween in August Safeway Seattle 818.JPG


US12 – a common language

We’ve been back from the US for more than a month now, but I’m still thinking about it. Here’s a last blog.

In Americanah (2013), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes how her Nigerian protagonist Ifemelu, living in America, “had perfected, from careful watching of friends and newscasters, the blurring of the t, the creamy roll of the r, the sentences starting with “so,” and the sliding response of “oh really,” but the accent creaked with consciousness, it was an act of will. It took an effort, the twisting of lip, the curling of tongue.”

During our short time there, I felt the opposite. I felt the Americanness around me trying to tug my mouth into a shape that would make American sounds. What I was suddenly conscious of was the Englishness of what was coming out of my mouth. My own act of will was to keep speaking my normal English English. This almost became an act – for example I found myself saying Cheerio instead of Goodbye, which I never do at home.

A lot of the American I heard, I didn’t understand.

Early evening sunshine in the courtyard at Café Rio at Rio del Mar, on Monterey Bay. Here we go hon, says the manager, bringing me a glass of wine. Thanks, I say. Uh-hUh, she says, with some kind of stress on the huh. I can’t understand tone of voice here. I can’t even reproduce what she said.

Men talking on the street in San Francisco:

–   Incredible man, incredible. And are you still doing crustacean?
–   Yeh – my Balkan party.

(It is possible that these were not the words spoken.)

In Russian, words for people and animals behave irregularly in the accusative case. These animate nouns also have an irregular form in American – it is the plural:


On the deck at Daniel’s Broiler on Lake Union in Seattle I ordered octopus. There’ll only be one Santa Claus, is that OK, said the waitress. I wish I’d replied, like Chico Marx in A Night at the Opera, You can’t fool me, there ain’t no sanity clause. Instead I looked at her gone out.

She means there’ll only be one tentacle, said my travelling companion.

octopus tentacle Lake Union Seattle 818.JPG

A last San Francisco story: I went to get my hair cut in the Mission district.  The manageress spoke to a boy sitting in her cutting chair, ten or twelve years old, slowly in Spanish: You don’t speak Spanish? You mama speaks Spanish, your papa speaks Spanish.

My haircut cost $8, plus a $2 tip. In Brussels I pay twice that.

If you spoke Spanish here, if only I knew how to speak it, people would reply in Spanish. Fullness of the Spanish language in the mouth. I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to move house to San Francisco – but I wouldn’t mind moving language.

mural Bartlett St San Francisco 818.JPG