Saturday, 28 May 2011

The Sweatshop

I often dream about giving up life as a researcher and setting up my own little business. It is not that I hate my job, in fact by lunchtime on a Monday I am always happy to be at work*, but for some reason I am drawn to the idea of running my own business. I have numerous ideas for a business venture, all of them bearing the name ‘Phil & Jack’. One idea I frequently return to is running a ‘sewing cafe’. Similar to an Internet café, customers could come in and rent a sewing machine. Unlike an Internet café, however, I would serve good (probably Merlo) coffee, leaf tea & homemade baked goods. In the centre would be a big table for cutting and pinning and resource books would be scattered around the shop. Knowledgeable staff (as in my Mum) would be on hand to answer any questions and provide advice. (If I allow my imagination to really wonder, the cafe would be staffed by family and friends who would all be sitting around busily sewing their own marvellous creations to sell). 

I was reassured last year that the idea wasn’t totally crazy when I read about the existence of a sewing café in Paris called Sweatshop (on a quite street just off the very trendy Canal St Martin). The cafe was started by two friend, one a Swiss make-up artist and the other an Austrian clothing designer, who decided that Paris needed a place where both novice and experienced sewers could gather. By all accounts business is booming. On our recent trip to Paris we took a visit to the Sweatshop and it really is a lovely creative space. 

I am far too sensible and conservative to every do something as daring as setting up my own business, but I do love reading about people who have thrown caution to the wind and risked everything on a crazy idea.

*My measure of job satisfaction and enjoyment

Friday, 6 May 2011

The People You Meet

Nick and I have just returned from a lovely week in France – 4 nights in Paris and 4 nights in the Loire Valley. Last year we did a big city tour of the world spending time in Berlin, Rome, Paris, and New York, so we were keen for some proper R&R while in the Loire Valley. For this reason we deliberately did not hire a car and found (well at least we thought we had) a gite within easy access to all the requirements for a relaxing holiday (fromagerie, boucherie, boulangerie & patisserie).

Our hosts mentioned that while these ‘necessities’ were not on our doorstep they were certainly within easy reach and offered us three possibilities: a) hire bikes from the town nearby; b) use the bikes they provide for guests; or c) ask then to collect provisions for us when they were in town (and they would be happy to oblige). On arrival our hosts informed us that they would be away for most of our stay. This meant of course that we would not be able to rely on them to pop into town for us. The ‘nearby’ town with bike hire facilities was actually 7km away and the bike hire shop was not open when we needed it to be. This left us with option b, use the bikes provided, which would have been a perfectly acceptable option had the bikes been in working order. The bikes however were not– the breaks on one did not work and the tires on both were flat. Lucky for us, Nick misspent many of his younger years repairing bikes so was able to fix the breaks, but short of using our breath, we had no way of blowing up the tires. (This story has a point, I promise).

Nonetheless, on our first day, desperate for food* we had no option but to cycle to the nearest village on the barely functioning bikes. Anyone who has cycled with flat tyres would know that not only is it not particularly good for the bike (we didn’t care about this of course, they were not our bikes, and as far as we were concerned our hosts should not have offered them as an option) but also, and perhaps more importantly, it makes it virtually impossible to cycle. We eventually made it into town but were quick to declare that this was not an option for the following days. We went to the local pub for an ice cold beer to reward ourselves for our efforts. Incidentally enjoying a pression from an unpretentious rural pub is Nick’s absolutely favourite thing to do (you can take the boy out of Grafton but you can’t take Grafton out of the boy).
Enjoying a 'pression'
It was while enjoying our second beer, discussing our disappointment that we could not buy fresh bread everyday (I also had romantic visions of slow meandering cycle rides along quite roads stopping by the river for a swim and some cheese and wine but of course this was now impossible given the state of the bikes), or indeed travel anywhere, when a local came out from the bar. Quite abruptly he said ‘are you Americans’. Never wanting to be associated with our dear friend’s state side, we quickly replied ‘no, we are Australians’. A strange but pleasant ‘drifter’, he sat down with us and we chewed the fat for a while. It transpired that he was from Manchester originally (though sounded exactly like Paul McCartney) but had moved to France a long time ago. He was a photographer who rode a ‘fixie’. We were discussing the state of our bikes, when all of sudden he shouted ‘hang on a minute’ and ran away. He returned with a bike pump (kept always in the boot of his car to pump the tires of his wife’s wheelchair**) suitable for pumping the tires on our bikes. So with pumped tires and some suggestions on what to see in the area we were on our way. And thanks to Ed we were able to enjoy fresh bread everyday and (my plans for slow romantic rides along quite country roads were fulfilled).

Fresh bread

*I tell a little white lie. We were not actually desperate for food – we had sufficient food – but we were desperate for the fresh bread that the French are so famous for.
**Ed said that we could use the bike pump whenever we needed it. It was always in the boot of his car which was parked ‘just over there’ and which he never kept locked. 

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Canal St Martin

My Mum has an engineer’s fascination with structural things (aqueducts, locks, boats, etc). As far as I can tell it is a trait she inherited from my grandfather. So on a trip to Paris last December it was with much anticipation (from her at least) that we took a walk along the Canal St Martin. 

Ordered by Napoleon 1 to supply Paris with fresh water and to help avoid the spread of disease, the canal was dug from 1802 to 1825. As well as supplying water to the Parisians, it was used to transport food, building materials and other such things. By 1960, traffic along the canal had all but disappeared. Plans were made to fill the canal in to make way for a new highway, however luckily the canal escaped this fate. Today, the canal is used mostly to transport tourists but it still boasts several operating locks. It was these locks that my Mum was so keen to see in action. We had a lovely albeit treacherous (on account of the icy* streets) walk along the Canal, however much to Mum’s dismay we did not see any of the locks functioning in all their old-world glory.  

While in Paris last week, Nicko and I decided to take a stroll along the Canal St Martin. The fascination with structures being somewhat lost on me, I had forgotten all about the locks. Nonetheless I was keen to retrace the journey with Nicko (there are some lovely shops along the canal you see). As luck would have it, boat-loads (excuse the pun) of people were travelling up the canal providing Nick and I with the opportunity to marvel at a working lock. 

Despite my initial cynicism (‘yeah, yeah Mum locks are amazing, I get it, can we talk about something else now’), it WAS actually amazing. We watched the boat coming in, the gates of the lock opening, the water rushing in to fill the lock, the gates re-opening once the water levelled and then the boat continuing on its journey – an engineering marvel, simple yet effective. Anyway Mum, these pictures are for you.  The final one is of a family of ducklings we also spotted.

*It had snowed the previous day and Paris seemed as capable of dealing with the snow as London.