Thursday, 2 June 2016

An Italian Accordion-hunt

Finding the recent French weather a little on the inclement side for a full enjoyment of life, I decided to realise a long-held ambition and go travelling in northern Italy. As my focus, I decided upon two accordion museums, one in Stradella, where the standard left-hand fingering system used on the majority of modern accordions was invented, and the other in Castelfidardo, the "town of accordions" where my piano accordion was born in the workshops of the maker Borsini.

After two or three hours driving along the autostrada that winds down out of the mountains, along the Aosta valley and out into the plains beyond, I found myself driving along a cosy tree-lined avenue and into the backstreets of a small town. Having found a place to park, I wandered through the narrow, Sunday-afternoon streets, and eventually found, on a rather unassuming functional library building, a plaque reading, "Museo della Fisarmonicha". Being a Sunday, the library was closed, but the building was open. Along a dingy corridor, sitting at a trestle table were two ageing men who seemed altogether surprised and excited that anyone had come to the museum at all, let alone someone all the way from England! They spoke no English, but in a mixture of not-quite-English and not-quite-Italian (gleaned mostly from my phrasebook and dictionary that I had taken along) they found out a bit about me, including that I play the accordion. Brimming with excitement, the older of the two gentlemen led me back along the corridor and with a gleeful, "Andiamo!" beckoned me up the stairs. From a locker in the roped-off library area he produced a key, with which he opened a glass door leading to a small suite of smaller rooms, in which was an exhibition outlining the local and contextual history of the accordion. I didn't have much time to look at the exhibition, however, because for the next hour or so, the excited man plied me with a stream of Italian constituting a verbal version of what the museum had to say. From the occasional familiar-sounding word amongst the Italian, and the photos he was referring to along the way, I gleaned that I was being told the story of an Austrian who had settled here in the early 19th century and had found the local standard of craftsmanship ideal for developing the squeezebox into something resembling the instrument we know today.

A while - I could not say how long - into this personalised guided tour, the other gentleman appeared in the exhibition room, followed by a group of about 15 Italian tourists. He interrupted my guide, and said to me, "you play the accordion, don't you?" I nodded yes, and he immediately announced "we need someone to play for this group: will you do that for us?" Wow! I had assumed that everyone in this town would be an accordionist, but that did not seem to be the case. So, being the only box-player in the house, I unwittingly became the star of the Stradella accordion museum! They handed me a full-size piano accordion, and while the two gentlemen showed the tourists around, I sat and played the accordion to the best of my abilities, despite it having a rather different feel to the one I am used to. I received many encouraging comments from the captivated crowd, and when I played Il Mio Sono they erupted in applause (that one always goes down well with Italians, even with a few wrong notes!)

The group eventually left, satisfied with their experience, and my guide resumed my tour, showing me around the various examples of different types of accordion, prototypes and attempts at different forms of accordion, including a table-top synthesiser with Stradella-system fingering on the bass.

He also felt I should have a go on one other accordion, in particular to see the difference in sound quality with the one I had played before. Between us we lifted the perspex dust cover off a plinth, and I picked up the accordion housed within and strapped it on. Indeed the quality was different, much more mellow and melodious…. It was explained to me that on this particular instrument, the reed housings were made of copper, rather than the usual aluminium. I'm sure this makes for a difference in price as well as sound quality!

Eventually satiated with local accordion knowledge, I thanked the gentlemen and bade them farewell.

I thought that I would go and visit Florence, as I had been there on a school trip in 1998 and was curious to see if it had changed in my mind since then. In Florence, there is a bronze statue of a boar. You are supposed to rub the boar's nose, and this means that at some point you will return to Florence. In 1998 I had not rubbed the boar's nose, so part of me wanted to go back to the city and rub it to guarantee a third return - and perhaps I wanted the opportunity of an Arthur Dent - style insurance policy (Arthur Dent knows that he cannot die until after he has been to Stavromula Beta, so he simply never goes there). So I phoned up Florence Youth Hostel, made sure that they had space, and drove straight there, which took about 3 hours. The magic boar had other ideas, however: I never made it to Florence, as the youth hostel is not in the city, but beyond it, in a small town in the Tuscan hills, on the way to two other places I had visited before, San Gimignano and Siena.

After a night in a dormitory full of snoring Americans and Chinese, I drove over the hills to San Gimignano, a hilltop town which has a number of skyscrapers dating from the 13th and 14th centuries! Apparently a lot of Italian towns and cities used to have towers like this: they were status symbols erected by rival families.

San Gimignano is perhaps the best preserved concentration of such towers in a small town. I wandered the streets, enjoying the ways the geography of the place had shifted in my mind over the years, and had a truly awful slice of doughy tourist pizza, topped with floppy canned mushrooms. After a bit of busking in a non-obvious side road, I got back on the road and went to Siena. This is a bustling student/tourist town, with perhaps the most picturesque town centre imaginable, centring on a sloping semicircular piazza around the huge tower of the town hall. Again, the scale and geography of the place had shifted in my mind, but it was truly pleasant to while the balmy evening away sitting in the piazza, as I continued my fruitless search for a decent pizza (the one I had here had nothing on but pesto, and burnt the roof of my mouth).


I had found an out-of-season rate on a lakeside hotel in the middle of Italy, so after my pleasant Siennese evening, I drove to the village of Passignano sul Trasimeno. Although it was late when I arrived, I couldn't resist a saunter around the village before bed. The old town was near the hotel, and consisted of ancient streets winding steeply up a hill to a castellated high point. It reminded me somewhat of how I imagined Cittagazze in His Dark Materials and was also rather a lot like Minas Tirith as depicted in the Lord of the Rings films.

The lake itself - Lago Trasimeno - is somewhat interesting, as it has no outflow: the water escapes from it by evaporation. This was part of the reason it was one of the last areas in Italy to eradicate malaria. Although I only got one mosquito bite while I was there (hopefully malaria is still eradicated!), there were copious swarms of other kinds of flies, and I had to keep my hotel windows shut as the one time I opened one of them briefly, at least 10 of the critters got in.

In the morning, I played my accordion on the lake shore and then drove right across the middle of Italy. The landscape and infrastructure reminded me very much of Japan: roads have a habit of being unfinished, in the sense that a multi-lane highway will just stop and become a winding mountain road, and perhaps then turn back a few miles later. The road which was marked being built on the map I had ("due for completion in 2008") had still not been finished, and yet another road, which had not even been thought of in 2008 had been completed and in use for several years. Eventually, I saw the Adriatic sea, and found my way - despite a SatNav battery failure - to another hilltop town: Castelfidardo.

This seems to be an accordion town to a much greater extent than Stradella: there is an accordion shop or maker on almost every street corner, and accordion designs are worked into the very fabric of the town on railings etc.

The accordion museum here is bigger and self-described as "International" and by the blasé welcome I got, they seem to be much more used to people coming to visit (even people from as far away as England!) So I did not become the star of any particular show, but there were a few interesting things to see: such as an accordion-type-instrument built based on a design by Leonardo da Vinci who pre-empted the accordion by more than 300 years;

 an accordion chess set, and a huge collection of accordion tat: little ornaments depicting all manner of creatures and characters playing accordions.

There were also 3 different types of accordion "for tourists to try playing if they want a go", so of course I had to have a go. The museum attendants neither seemed overly impressed nor particularly condescending about my accordion playing ability.

I then braved the intense rainstorm and moved to a different place - a tiny "museum" in the back of an accordion shop, where I saw and "played" the two largest accordions in the world. These are both a few metres high and have special automated mechanisms for operating the bellows.

A bit of a tourist gimmick, really, but I hung around in the shop and had a go on some of the real accordions that were there as well.

My final port of call in the town was the headquarters of "Borsini" the manufacturer of my piano accordion. The factory seemed very shut up and unapproachable, but I got the necessary photo and briefly played the accordion within earshot of its birthplace.

It's probably a good thing that no accordion manufacturers were present, because to be honest they would probably cry if they saw the state of my bellows…

That evening I stayed with Barbara, an Italian friend from way back in my English-teaching days in 2003, who cooked me a wonderful pasta dinner and we caught up on the last 13 years.

The next day I returned to France, but not without a brief stop in the city of Bologna, which has one of the oldest universities in the world, and a number of towers, one of which leans more impressively even than the Pisa Campanile. I then drove through thunderstorms and Milanese gridlock, and headed back towards the Alps. In the evening, in the town of Ivrea at the entrance to the Aoste valley, I finally found my pizza: a thin-crusted quattro formaggio from an unassuming wood-fired pizzeria in a non-touristy part of a non-touristy town.

Half way up the winding alpine road on the way out of Italy, I came across a bus, teetering, half on the road and half over a cliff. There seemed to be something heavy in the end of the bus that was over the cliff, because the group of men that were on board were all gathered in the cab, trying desperately to keep the vehicle balanced. I would have stopped to offer my help, but the guy who seemed to be the leader of the group was talking rather loudly and seemed to have a pretty good idea about what he was going to do to get out of the situation…

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

earning freedom

Waiting patiently for Chamonix's lifts to open for the winter, I still can't help hiking up when the weather is good for flying:

earning freedom from Sparky Mark Baldwin on Vimeo.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The kind of day snowboarders dream of...

It's not often that I write about snowboarding on this blog, but today was so good that it needs to be shared!

I was riding up at the Flégère ski area in the Chamonix valley. The powder was deep and plentiful, the air was fresh and the sky clear, the crystals were sparkly, and I will let the photos tell the rest.

My beard's not normally as white as that...

N.B. The snow that you see flying through the air in some of these photos is not falling from the sky - this is the powder that is displaced as I move through it on my (admittedly rather small for the conditions) snowboard.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Crossing the Atlantic - Part 3: Final Stretch

48 hours after we had retrieved the drogue from the water, the weather was starting to show signs of abating. The waves were still huge and epic, and would still have been the biggest we'd ever seen if we had seen them three days before. But now we had 2 days experience of steering in them, and it was time to get some rest. Two hours is not nearly enough time to remove foul weather gear, clamber into a bunk at a strange angle and get any worthwhile amount of sleep, so we reverted to the normal watch schedule, to win us some much-needed sleep time.

The mood on board gradually shifted from the tense uncertainty of survival mode to the growing relief that we were nearing the final days of the voyage. No passage is over, however, until the boat is safely tied up in a harbour.

Perhaps the most amazing thing I saw on the crossing is dolphins darting around at night time. Due to the phosphorescence inherent in the ocean waters, a night time dolphin appears as a luminous water-spirit, the light of the jostled plankton dancing around the boat in long trails, looking like sea-dragons. On several occasions, we saw groups of 5 or 6 dolphins swimming together in the dark, their trails weaving together alongside the boat, one peeling off every now and then, swimming away, and curving back to join the others again. This is almost made even more special as it cannot be filmed, due to the low light level of the phosphorescent glow.

Another amazing and unphotographable night time phenomenon was experienced by Matt and I on the first night that the wind seemed to be settling down. There was a bright moon off our starboard quarter to the south, and many of the larger clouds brought fast intense squalls of rain, some of which drenched us briefly, and some of which passed us by. One of the larger squalls that did not hit us directly passed us on the port side, and in conjunction with the moon caused an unbelievably beautiful effect that I have come to call a "moonbow". This was the nocturnal equivalent of a rainbow, caused by the moon, rather than the sun, shining on falling rain. It was quite magical. Instead of seven bright colours, the moonbow had seven shimmering shades of silvery grey.

As the high pressure weather system moved over us, the wind lightened, the horizon became horizontal (and flat!), and we gradually changed the sails back up the gears to larger and larger sail plans. The sky contained more settled cloud patterns, such as "cloud streets", with which I am familiar from my paragliding experience. I correctly predicted that as we passed under each cloud street, we would get a little bit more wind strength and pressure in the sails. Although there was reportedly a warm front on the way, this never caught up with us, and even the cloud streets eventually petered out. For the second time on the passage, we became becalmed. Nick decided to run the engine. Although the relatively flat sea was a nice contrast to the maelstrom of days previous, the engine was noisy, and it was slightly uncertain as to whether we had enough fuel to get us to the British Isles.

The next few days were a fine test of patience. The large high pressure system that we found ourselves in was sitting just off the Celtic coasts (Ireland, Cornwall, Brittany). While this was far preferable to the low pressure systems that had been sitting here in the weeks before we left St. John's, it made for a frustrating time. The light winds came and went - mostly went - and we tried to balance the ability to make what speed we could with the necessity of saving fuel. A happy medium was found by sailing with the motor on just slightly, which  kept us around 5-6 knots: not a bad speed in theory, but frustratingly slow as we had got used to a steady 8 knots while running before the big winds. Fortunately, we were still heading East.

From my diary:
"The current scenario is that we are all aware that we are fast approaching the British Isles: in fact, we passed south of Ireland at some point today. But it is so frustrating because, a) None of us can see it, and b) It's still over a day's sail to the Isles of Scilly, and especially now that we are down to 5 knots, it all seems frustratingly out of reach.
On the other hand, I am having such a wonderful time that I can't believe it's all nearly over - we will almost certainly arrive in Falmouth at some point within the next 48 hours, which would make our crossing time less than 2 weeks, which would be amazing. "

The relative boredom of the last few days was pleasantly relieved by the ability to cook again, and time for some serious music-making.

Further excitement came from being once again in the company of dolphins.

There were a number of huge pods which seemed to enjoy splashing along around our bows and chattering away.

We had dolphins following us for hundreds of miles, and I took the opportunity to get some underwater images by attaching my waterproof camera to a boat hook.

At one point, we saw a different pod of a much larger species of dolphin. The ones who had been following us surreptitiously disappeared while the larger dolphins came and investigated the boat. The larger species did not stay with us, but after a while, we noticed that the smaller ones were back. It seems that dolphin species are as territorial as any other animal.

When a slight rise in wind speed eventually allowed us to switch the engine off altogether, the dolphins immediately went away. There was I thinking they were peace-loving, anti-pollution type eco-creatures, and they disappeared as soon as we made the switch to a renewable form of energy! Theories on why this might be ranged from "they probably enjoy scratching their backs on the spinning propeller" to "they must have been trying to tell us to please switch our engine off, and now they've got their message across!"

On the evening of Saturday 1st of September, I was on watch with Nathan, and baking a cake at the same time. At around 6:05 pm (Taniwha time), I came up from checking on my cake, and Nathan said, "is that a lighthouse?" And it was! About 20 miles to the North, we could see Bishop Rock Lighthouse, off the Isles of Scilly: the first fixed point that any of us had seen for 12 days! In the excitement, I forgot all about the cake until a burning smell crept up from the galley... Only the top was singed, however, and the cake was enjoyed by all.

As afternoon slid into evening, Bishop Rock was joined on the horizon by the low-lying islands of St, Mary and St. Agnes, and we realized we had done it! Taniwha had crossed The Atlantic! And here we were entering the English channel, perhaps the busiest shipping lane in the world...

As Nick correctly predicted, it was to be a busy night. Everything on a boat happens in slow motion, and at night especially, it is easy to feel very detached from small lights in the distance. But small lights in the distance can suddenly turn into things like big ships very close by.  It can all get very real very quickly, so now that we were in busy waters, we had to keep our wits about us and fight the inherently somnolent nature of the night watch. While I was on watch with Matt, somewhere just south of Mounts Bay, we discerned from a minimal collection of lights behind us that a cargo ship that had just rounded Land's End was headed straight for us. The other ship hailed us on the radio, and Matt replied, while I kept us on course. The ship was far enough away that they could alter course to steer round us. Further to our stern, two Irish ferries crossed paths, but were far enough behind us that no evasive action was needed.

After we had rounded the Lizard, which has the brightest most intense lighhouse I have ever seen, Nick and Nathan, who had  taken over from Matt and I, roused the rest of us to go up and help them with our final change of course: we tacked and set our final course for the mouth of Falmouth harbour, around where there were several huge ships moored.

And all of a sudden, there we were, in the early hours of the morning, sailing into Falmouth. Just outside the harbour entrance, we started the engine and dropped the sails. As with our arrival into St. John's, the smells of land wafted down to us off the hills. Here it was the smells of morning dew on grassy fields, woodlands, earth and acorns: those quintessentially English smells I had not smelled for over two years.
Tying up at the pontoon, we found ourselves surrounded by unmoving objects: hills in the middle distance, harbour walls, and many quaint-looking buildings, most of which were the size of mid-Atlantic waves...

And then I leapt ashore...

And tied us up!

And the voyage was over!

After a day of coming down-to-earth, during which Nathan left on the train for Heathrow, Matt suggested that the four of us go out for a celebratory drink. On the way to the pub, I completed my no-fly circumnavigation - by walking through a space I had been to on my last visit to Falmouth, since when I had not boarded an aircraft of any description. To celebrate, I allowed Matt to buy me a gingerale/grapefruit juice (I only had Canadian Dollars on me) and sat down with the others and wondered what to do next.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Crossing The Atlantic - Part 2: MONSTROUS!

For a day or two after being becalmed, we happily sailed downwind making good speed in the direction we wanted to go. The sunrises and sunsets were consistently beautiful, and the good weather and numerous visits by dolphins kept us all in good spirits and feeling somewhat invincible.

Nick had been downloading weather charts from the SSB radio to a fax reader app on the iPad. He had been warning us since the becalmment that according to the weather forecasts, the benign conditions we had been experiencing would change into a rather rougher environment at some point in the not too distant future. The wind, however, at no point seemed like it would pick up wildly or get crazy.

At 9am on August 26th Matt and I went up on deck to take over the watch from Nick and Nathan. Nick had sent Nathan off-duty first, and as he came down below, he told us it was still plain sailing with light winds and the conditions hadn't changed. In the few minutes it took Matt and I to finalize our preparations (warm clothing and wellies on, life jackets on) and get up on deck, all hell was breaking loose.

The wind did a sudden leap up to 20 knots with gusts to 25, and we helped Nick change the sails down to a more manageable configuration.

Throughout the morning, the wind speed gradually increased, and bit by bit we reefed the mainsail, making the sail area smaller and smaller. With the increased wind, the waves increased in height, and regularly splashed over the deck.

Just before Nathan and I went on our mid-afternoon watch, Nick decided to take the mainsail down totally, after which we were jogging along with just a smallish foresail, and as the wind continued to increase, we found ourselves still making 6-7 knots: a very respectable speed for a sailing yacht. The waves were generally manageable, but Nick had pointed out to me some bigger waves of 2-3 metres which rolled through from time to time. As these waves appeared more and more often, it became clear that unless we steered a course downwind - to the south - these waves would hit us side on, and risk tipping the boat over on its side. Even steering downwind was tricky. The waves came in sets, and caused strange illusions: the boat would surfed down the steeper waves, and as the wave overtook the boat, the deceleration caused the illusion of travelling backwards up the wave behind us.

In light of the challenging conditions, Nick announced, "Right. It's drogue time." The drogue he referred to was a Jordan Series Drogue - essentially a long line to which are attached hundreds of fabric cones. When dragged behind the boat, this piece of equipment will slow the boat right down, and align it perpendicular to the waves, supposedly preventing it being tipped over by the waves.

With the drogue out, there was no need for anyone to steer the helm or even be out on deck, so for the night, we set up a 1-person watch system to look out for ships, which allowed us all to get some rest. Once more the Taniwha's progress was stalled: this time not by too little wind, but in struggle against the effects of too much wind. We were now almost exactly half way across the Atlantic, with the handbrake on. The nearest land mass was the Azores, which was in the region of 1000 miles away - the same distance away as either St. John's or Falmouth.

Before we could sleep, though, there was the bilge to worry about: this was discovered to be rather full of water, so a lot of pumping had to be done. What made matters worse was that since we were now essentially stopped in the water, the larger waves (which were still increasing in frequency and size) were coming right over the back of the boat and flooding the cockpit.

The deck areas all have drains, so this would not have been a problem, were it not for the fact that there was an unstoppable hole in the deck where a piece of equipment had been installed. I noticed the stream of water coming into the stern of the boat, and Nick did his best with a twisted rag to convert the flow to a trickle, which allowed the bilge to be pumped almost (but not quite totally) dry.

It was difficult to relax in the evening, and I frequently got up to have a look out at the waves. On one occasion Matt and I both went up the companionway for a quick glance.

As we looked out, we both saw the biggest wave either of us had ever seen bearing down upon us - it was fully 5 or 6 metres tall, and we had no time to react before it broke violently over the stern of the boat, and caught us both full in the face.

In the morning, there were still some mighty waves around, but Nick decided that since we were all well-rested after our overnight, drogue-induced pit-stop, we should be able to cope, and so the new plan was to continue sailing as long as we could. The first challenge was to pull the drogue in. It took all 5 of us to perform this feat, and we had to use the "coffee grinder" - a pair of handles that attach to the winch to give us more leverage for tricky manoeuvres like this. Pulling on handles for the 20 minutes or so that it took to retrieve the drogue, I was taken straight back to the rowing training I did at school, and the necessity of pushing oneself through the pain of exhaustion.

 By and by, we got the drogue back on board, cleared it out of the way, and rigged up a conservative sail plan under which to sail on. The day was surprisingly sunny, but we continued on a heavy-weather watch system of 2 hours on, 2 hours off, with 4 of us manning the watches and Michelle detailed as backup to provide us with food and moral support as required. We made a steady 7-8 knots all day. With challenging but consistent conditions, we built up enough confidence to feel that we could sail through the night. In the middle of the following night, a long dark cloud approached us from behind. As it came over, the wind suddenly switched 90 degrees to a cool flow out of the North, causing us to change the boat's direction from heading South-East to heading South-West. Nick was woken by the change in the boat's motion, and he came up to help Matt and I change the sails so that we could continue Eastward. As I went to bed, I thought perhaps that this new weather pattern would bring a lull in the wind and the return to more benign conditions.

When I woke, however, I realized that this was not the case. Nick had popped down briefly, and I asked him how conditions were, expecting to hear that they had mellowed nicely. On the contrary, his one-word answer was "MONSTROUS". He went on to say that it frequently felt like we were steering our way through a washing machine. Looking above deck, I realized that he really wasn't kidding.

There before my eyes was the very definition of Monstrous. All around us, independently rising and falling, were peaks and valleys of water, all constantly changing and undulating.

 Throughout the day, the wind trended stronger and stronger, and the waves even seemed to get larger. We all agreed that the waves were frequently at least the size of our parents' houses. These were multilayered waves: veritable mountains of water. To hike up one of these, if they were static and solid, you would have to hike for a while, stop for a rest, then hike some more before you got to the top.

At the crest of the wave, given a gust of wind and the right boat direction, we would surf, careening down into the vast valley below. We hardly went below 8 knots all day, and surfing down the waves we frequently made speeds of 10-11 knots, with a maximum speed of 12.92 knots!

 Little by little, we improved our boat-steering technique, but all too often an unexpected wave caught us from a different angle to the majority.

The boat would heel and roll violently over onto its side, causing much discomfort to those in the cabin, frustration to whoever was on the helm, and causing the other person on deck to cling on for dear life until the boat had righted itself. Not infrequently, the boom and part of the main sail would go right down into the water, and even the side of the deck went below water level more than a few times.

On one occasion, in the middle of the night, after I had almost been tossed from my bed a few times, the boat was thrown over so violently to the starboard side that it seemed impossible that those on deck could have hung on. Inside the boat, the wall became the floor onto which we fell, and what had been the floor did a remarkable impression of a new wall, with a table fixed calmly in the middle of it. As I emerged from sleep, the boat righted itself, so I got out of bed and poked my head up through the companionway to make sure Nick and Nathan were both still aboard.

"The spreaders go underwater, did they?" I asked, referring to the horizontal parts near the top of the mast.

"Nah, we just got blindsided by a freak wave," replied Nathan, who sounded surprisingly calm.

It must have been that sort of calm that comes from being in a state of shock, because he and Nick later told us that when the boat went over on its side, a third of the deck went underwater, as did a large proportion of the mainsail. Nick was wedged in between the hand hold wheel frames, and Nathan, who had little control, due presumably to the rudder being out of the water, simply had to hang onto the wheel for dear life as the wave subsided and the boat came around.

Although this moment did not seem as scary as some that we experienced, it was probably the single point on the whole voyage where our lives were most at risk. Had another wave come from such an angle as to tip the boat even further over, there is no knowing what state we and the boat might have ended up in.

The ocean, it seems, is a dynamic environment.

We were able to keep going, so we did.