Nautical Elegance from the “Belle Epoque”

This is a guest post by Bertrand Godfroid.

Robin, Isaac and I wait by the water’s edge of the Jardin des Anglais at the foot of Lake Leman. We are surrounded by Geneva in full fête mode. Merry-go-rounds go round merrily spinning every possible nationality; all smiling and taking selfies. Odourful stalls tout hot dogs, donuts and candy floss. But it is not the fête that excites us. The Compagnie General de Navigation sur le Lac Leman (CGN) has invited Talking Beautiful Stuff to take an evening cruise aboard the “Savoie.”

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We watch in fascination as the most elegant of paddle steamers approaches it’s moorings to pick us up. Seagulls flap away as it gives a long, loud and steamy blast on its foghorn. We step on board. We are greeted by that delicate and unmistakable mix of fragrances of cool lake water, varnished wood and engine oil.

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The setting sun catches the glasses and bottles of a welcoming little cocktail bar. The restaurant that will soon fill with our fellow passengers is all linen tablecloths and glistening cutlery. If one is looking for for a film-set fantasy romantic interlude, there is nowhere that better fits the bill.

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We are welcomed warmly by the captain, 48 year-old Jean-Martial Mercanton. He has been in charge of this vessel since 2012. He follows in his father’s foot steps. He describes his working day and responsibilities with unfettered enthusiasm and tells us the most satisfying part of his job derives from sharing the country’s heritage with others. His only headaches come from the unpredictable weather, especially the famously vicious storms that barrel up the Rhone valley from warmer climes to crash into and over the nearby Alps. This is a man who loves his job and, by all accounts, looks after his crew.

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The Savoie, has to be high on any list scoring bygone nautical elegance and Captain Mercanton is rightly proud of his charge. It was built in Switzerland in 1914. The massive 900 horsepower high-low pressure cylinder engine was originally powered by coal. This was converted to oil in 1962. Amazingly, the boat only underwent its first full renovation in 2004. What’s more, this vessel is only one of eight of the CGN’s fleet of truly beautiful “belle époque” paddle-steamers.

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The engine room is open to view from the middle deck. It is mesmerising. It is all massive shiney whirling oily piston pumping power kept in line and running by engineer Yan Umberti and his team. The engine room tour is mesmerising. We stand amidst it all just grinning like school kids. This is so much fun!

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Twenty-five year-old Yan’s job is to keep the whole thing fired and lubricated ; he is never still. He handles the massive set of levers and controls with practiced ease taking his orders from Captain Mercanton the old-fashioned way by verbal orders. Between filling oil cylinders, checking steam and furnace temperatures he is happy to chat.

Yan patiently explains how the steam is produced from 16,000 litres of lake water, heated to 108 degree C, circulates through the two cylinders that drive the main shaft of the paddles and eventually exits having been mixed with lake water. We ask him if they have ever had a crisis on board. He tells of a day when there was a genuine engine failure with passengers on board. He was able to scavenge a part from another boat and run a temporary repair. The cruise finished albeit a little late. I note he refers to the engine as a person. Does he or she have a character? “She certainly does!” responds Yan. “She can be unpredictable. Sometimes the cylinders seem to get a bit out of synch and sometimes she just plays up and we don’t know why.” “Does she have a name?” I ask. “Yes, Josephine!” I ask where he will be in ten years time. “Right here! With Josephine!” he replies with a huge smile.

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Drenched in perspiration from the 55 degrees in the engine room, we go up to the upper level and order a cool drink. The sun has almost set whilst in Yan’s domain. We are invited to look at the dinner menu and decide on scallops and delicate mushroom raviolis washed down with a fine local gamay. Lightening strikes on distant mountains as we cruise slowly back down the lake. I am overcome with a feeling that all is well in the world. Very well.

If there is one thing you should do when visiting Geneva, it’s to take a cruise on Lac Leman aboard the Savoie. In the meantime, take a look at some more pics of our cruise.

Cosplay at the 2017 Geneva Gaming Convention

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I’ve been looking forward to the Geneva Gaming Convention for a very long time. In happy anticipation, I drive down to Palexpo. I’m in heaven. Surrounded by hundreds of gamers, all there to celebrate their love for games. I particularly enjoy the retro corner. I grew up with many of these games. GoldenEye! Street Fighter! But, my favourite thing this year? Cosplayers!

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In case you missed it: Cosplay (costume play) is a rapidly growing hobby-verging-on-culture in which the participants dress as specific characters from films, games, cartoons or books.

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Cosplay has multiple long roots that can be traced to the carnival dress of the 15th century, the costume balls of the 19th century and the “fancy dress parties” that were in vogue at the beginning of the 20th century.

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The first big leap was when attendees at 1930s science fiction conventions increasingly turned up in a pertinent costume. As a hobby unrelated to a specific event, it began to boom in 1980s Japan. No surprise there!

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Now, cosplay is much more than a costume ball writ large. It is globally connected being fuelled by social media, dedicated websites and specialised conventions. A hijab wearing Captain America even made the BBC news!

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There are cosplay competitions too. Cosplayers are judged on: resemblance to the original character in terms of appearance; quality and details of the costume and props; character portrayal and performance; stage presence and connection with the audience.

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An undercurrent of cosplay is based on sex appeal – by choosing a particularly alluring character – and changing gender (crossplayers!) This, unsurprisingly in today’s non-fantasy, pc world has precipitated fierce debate about what is and what is not appropriate.

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I’m a role-playing, hack-n-slash kinda guy, but I’ve never quite had the nerve to dress up as a character from a film, game or cartoon. I’ve always admired those that did. They really throw themselves into it.

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What is it about dressing up as a fantasy personage? I admit, it kind of appeals. Maybe next time. Maybe in a Vault 13 jumpsuit. Yea!

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Schiphol Clock

I am, once again, in transit at Schiphol airport. It is 3.54 pm. I have a few minutes for a coffee and a snoop about before a connecting flight. There’s always something interesting to discover here like big luggage people.

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I see a guy cleaning a big clock suspended from the ceiling. He seems to be wiping the clock-face from the inside. I can’t understand why so many people have their smart phones directed upwards.

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He’s obviously taking the job seriously as he’s removed the minute hand to give that frosted glass a good polish! I go to find a coffee.

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At 4.03 pm I am striding towards my departure gate and pass the clock again. The guy is still cleaning away. People are still fascinated. He then serves up a surprise!

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With a rubber window-cleaning blade, at 4.04 pm, he scrapes off the minute hand …..

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….. and repaints it one minute later with a small roller. I grasp what this is about. He has been doing this all along minute by minute. This is a performance in real time. Lordielord! This is brilliant! I am riveted.

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Entranced, I watch him wipe away and repaint a slightly advanced hour hand. Inevitably, a series of questions run through my head. Is there someone really inside that box? How does he get in there? Is he an “artist” or an employee? Does he get a break? Is there a change of shift every hour or so?

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I am now late for my flight but I have to satisfy my curiosity. I look up at the back of the massive clock. Sure enough, there is a ladder and a door. It seems the guy really is inside. I run grinning like an idiot. My heart sings. I have just witnessed creative genius on a grand public scale. This makes my day.

Later internet research tells me this is the work of Dutch designer Maarten Baas. It is one of his “Real Time” series. For his “performance,” Baas wears a blue overall and uses a red bucket and a yellow cleaning cloth all in solidarity with all those folk who keep the airport spotless.

Inevitably – and with only a little disappointment – I learn that this is a precisely synchronised 12 hour-long video performance projected within a stainless steel box. The ladder and door into the “clock” build an illusion of reality; the viewer is led to imagine the guy descending from a hatch in the ceiling and locking himself into the box to do his job.

I just love how Schiphol goes to such lengths to bring beautiful stuff to travel-weary passengers. Admirable! Fabulous! Thrilling!

Watch the video!

Cartooning the big issues

Geneva. It’s a wealthy, safe and pretty place that is, at times, surprisingly left-leaning especially when it comes to issues such as freedom of speech. Every year, the city sponsors a lakeside exhibition of “Cartoons for Peace” from all over the world. Beautiful? Maybe. Brilliant? Absolutely!

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One hundred huge panels display the best of cartoons that accuse, taunt, embarrass and blame the powerful, the corrupt and the cruel. The pencil-wielding warriors don’t pull the punches. Those war-mongers must really cringe! However, the exhibition has mission creep. It’s no longer just about peace. Other subjects that reach us daily via global media get a caustic drenching from these observant graphicists. For the viewer, the slick images fire an intriguing alloy of emotions.

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Boligan (Mexico)

There is a universal desire for peace. There’s an app for everything now. Hey! You military guys! It really could be that easy!! This makes me feel a kind of pity for humanity.

Some people can think up jokes. They have the ability to merge different elements of a narrative into a timely punch-line. I guess a cartoon is a kind of visual joke. A few disparate observations or notions are drawn together into one arresting and complete visual concept. At first glance, a cartoon is simple; but the viewer is invited to examine the image, refine its elements and then “get” the interaction of those elements in a mental join-the-dots exercise. There is then an emotional impact. What fascinates me more is that by “getting” a cartoon about a big global issue, I feel I am actually doing something about it. Ha! Slactivism!

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Cristina (Belgium)

A major car company. Guilty smile. Lies. Children’s toy. Innocence. This amuses me.

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Joel Pett (USA)

Superior American military technology. Unthinking citizens. Anonymised “collateral damage” (especially children.) Killing at a distance. Unknown and unseen perpetrator. This makes me very angry. Too close to the bone!

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Hani Abbas (Syria)

Writing not possible although it should be. Erasing is the norm. Censorship. I feel a kind of objective concern. I’ve never lived for any length of time in a country where I cannot say what I think. I admire the simplicity of the image.

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Shahrokh (Iran)

Sinister anonymity of a man of violence. Juxtaposition of delicate flower and ammunition. Making a wish. Wind blowing right to left (east to west?) I am afraid.

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Firoozeh (Iran)

Migrants from islamic countries. Families about to drown. Only possibility of survival is Europe. I feel sad and enormously lucky to live where I do. I also feel a responsibility but I am not sure what I can do.

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Brandan (South Africa)

A compass. Is it worth undertaking the journey? Stark choices for Africans. Desperation. I feel totally helpless.

A cartoon may work in our minds like a joke but is not always amusing. Unlike the verbal equivalent, a cartoon on being propagated can identify its talented creator. Let’s not forget that in many countries, the emotional reaction to these clever drawings might end in a prison sentence or worse for the cartoonist responsible.

Geneva International Motor Show: Bugatti is the big celebrity!

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OK. I’m not a car person. But I am fascinated by the Geneva International Motor Show. It’s not just the cars. It’s such a sumptuous feast of gorgeous luxy design. It’s also quite an event for people-watching.

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Take a look at Bugatti’s Chiron! It has no equal. Sixteen cylinders with 8 litre capacity; top speed is 425kph; 1,500hp; and it’s priced at a cool $2.6 million! I’m not sure if it’s a car, a “work of art” or a celebrity. Whatever, the admirers crowd around, iPhones at the ready.

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Is it all status-life-style dreaming? Or can a car grab our attention like a celebrity? You’d think so. And it must be a guy thing. Not a single woman taking a photo! It seems that the Y chromosome is alive and well at this year’s show and is fascinated by new and expensive ways to cruise the chicks!

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On a more sobre and less testosterone charged front, I am one of many captivated by Nissan’s IDS Concept. This is the first driverless car I’ve seen. No steering wheel; just a touchscreen. I adore the lines, colours and the sleek wooden interior trim. It makes me feel future-happy.

Thousands upon thousands of people come to Geneva for this event. Whether or not cars are your thing, it’s worth a visit. It’s testament to the enduring fascination that man (!) has for automobiles and how some even have celebrity status.