Author Archives: beverleydalton1

Down by the Danube 1 – Festivals, fireworks, and the Hand of the King

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WHEN THE SUMMER COMES TO AN END

Campsites have a difficult time out of season. Most close altogether, becoming strange little glamping-pod ghost towns. Others diversify, letting out the space to groups and organisations. Several times during this trip we’ve been told we can only stay until Thursday morning, because then somebody is moving in to set up an event for the weekend.

At Jasov, in Slovakia, it was the turn of the annual Pit Bull and Staffi Weight-pulling contest. So that week some pretty impressive canine specimens pitched up, along with their proud (and equally scary looking) owners. We used to have a beautiful Staffi called Gizmo, so we weren’t phased, but the campsite cleared incredibly fast, I must say.

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One chap came over to borrow a wrench from Steve in order to fix some tracking that was to be used in the contest. The dogs were going to pull a loaded cart along it for several metres. Here’s the cart, on the left – ready to be stacked with that enormous pile of concrete blocks on the right. I’m not even joking.

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So we left, because we had to, and took a jaunt down towards Budapest, in Hungary. This meant meeting up again with the River Danube. It’s a flighty little stretch of water – it gets about a bit. So far, we’ve run into it in Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Croatia.  I’ve noticed that khaki is it’s hue of choice, although it will don shades of silver, slate, greige, black, brown or olive if the mood takes it. But not once, not once have I seen it blue.

BUT BUDAPEST THO

Sometimes we are clever but mostly we are just lucky, which is how we managed to arrive in time to see the start of the St. Stephen’s Day Festival. I’m not going to give you a history lesson about King St. Stephen (Google him if you’re interested) but he was a really big deal. The first king of Hungary as we know it today, and their version of King Arthur and the Pope, all mixed together. They’ve got his right hand in the Basilica, and it gets paraded through the streets to much fanfare and celebration, followed by fireworks.

I was concerned that parking would be an issue as thousands of people flock to the city for the event, but when we got there a helpful traffic cop said, ‘Park where you like – it’s free’. Seriously? We found a spot alongside the river, opposite parliament (here it is beautifully un-reflected in the khaki green Danube).

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We took a very short walk to ‘The Street of Hungarian Flavours’. Here you could taste everything from the soup, to goulash, to langos (a sort-of pizza dough that is stretched, and flash fried, and then covered in garlic sauce and grated cheese), to spit-roast pork, and beer, and ice-cream, and cakes, and more beer – really, lots more beer.

Our UK Health and Safety would have gone nuts. There were open fires with massive bubbling cauldrons, right on the street with no barrier between them and the crowds. I bloody loved it.

CRAFTS AND PERFORMANCES

The ‘street’ led up to the castle on the hill, where the ‘Festival of Folk Art’ was in full swing. There was a hell of a lot of beautiful embroidery, as well as traditional crafts from visiting nations such as Tibet, China, and Nepal. The costumes were amazing.

Of course, there were crafts there that nobody should either make, show, or try to sell…

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…and this strange, hairy, masked guy in bloomers kept showing up. But that was part of the fun.

We also got to see the Changing of the Guard. They have two types here: one is a dainty quick-swap two-step; the other is the full turn-turn-step-turn-kick-turn version, with drums. We saw both.

Then we heard music, and a handsome Australian chap shoved a paper into my hand. He was part of a group that sang mainly Bartok, and they were just finishing their rehearsal.   The paper had the words to the folk songs they were going to sing (with audience participation), so we thought we’d give it a go. Apart from the obvious (we couldn’t understand how to pronounce any of the words, and didn’t know the tunes) it all went swimmingly, until the guy with the bagpipes came to the front of the stage.

Here’s a picture of the soften-you-up-with-some-merry-tunes-before-unleashing-the horror bastards, in their hideous shirts.

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Now, I assume that these were traditional instruments, because there’s absolutely no excuse for them otherwise. Apart from the bagpipes – which both looked, and sounded, as if he’d trapped a startled pig – he had a tin whistle (sigh), and a long, bamboo, tubey thing he blew down. Well, they all did. It was very impressive – not.

And a recorder – which he hummed into as well as blew into it, which added a weird didgeridoo-type of element. To say it was shrill is to be kind. Within a minute I had the sensation that all the fillings in my teeth were vibrating.

Three weeks later, one of my fillings fell out. I know who I blame.

Then It was time for the finale: fireworks over the Danube. And they were great because even crap fireworks are great, and these were not crap. Went on for a full thirty minutes. They included some that I genuinely hadn’t seen before – they formed gyroscopic shapes, which I thought only Gandalf could do.

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COSTUMES TO DIE FOR

As I said, we are lucky, and on our last day in Budapest we chanced upon another festival, a bit like our Harvest Festival, I think. Lots of dignitaries in regional costumes walked up, two by two, to put baskets of local produce on a huge map, outside the Basilica.

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We’d gone to the Basilica to see the hand of King St. Stephen, having drunk too much beer to catch it on it’s jaunt around town the previous week. And here it is – THE HAND OF THE KING, been around since 1038. That’s a set of knuckles you are looking at there.

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NEXT TIME…

I’ll tell you more about Budapest, from the Vasarely Museum to the Roman ruins at Aquincum. Thanks for reading. Ciao. xxxx

 

 

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Every parents’ worst nightmare

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We were totally blessed when both of Steve’s daughters had twins within three months of each other. Four babies – just like that (well, not for the mums, obviously).

And you know how you don’t care what sex they are (a boy and a girl, and two girls, since you ask), as long as they are happy and healthy? Well, one of them was not as healthy he first appeared. Little Kit (Rosie and Laurence’s boy) was only three months old when he started having fits and was very quickly hospitalised.

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Naturally, his parents were worried sick. Naturally, they both wanted to be in the ICU ward together when the doctors came round. A rota of friends and relatives took it in turns to look after his sister, Sky, and, naturally, I bagsied a chance, too.

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As did my youngest son, their Uncle Sam. He’d never looked after a baby – or even a small child – before, but he dropped everything and went up to London for his turn to be exhausted in a way he didn’t know was humanly possible. Did a fantastic job, too.

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Kit was diagnosed with Epilepsy and given medication that – when the right type and dosage was found – did the job. Phew. Crisis – not exactly over – but manageable.

In the months that followed, Kit had regular check ups. Although the dosage frequently needed changing in line with his increasing body weight, things were stable (-ish) for the family. There was even some suggestion that he might outgrow the condition as he reached the age of two.

And then, the last time we were in England, something new came out of one of those check ups.

They found a brain tumour.

Yup.

There it is. Every parents’ worst nightmare.

I remember getting the news whilst waiting in the car for Steve. He was organising getting the windows sorted on Georgie, and I stumbled up to him, told him the cold, bare facts, and burst into tears. Horrible, awful, scary.

Rosie and Laurence coped extraordinarily well considering the circumstances; there were no news reports that night of screaming maniacs disturbing the peace in Bromley. But they had to wait weeks for an appointment to see a specialist who could give them the info they needed and answer their questions.

The day before we left for our second journey, the meeting happened. We looked after Sky, and tried not to be anxious. But the news was good: the tumour was benign, it was in an easily accessible place, they could be pretty certain they’d cause no damage when they removed it, and it was highly likely that it was the reason for the seizures.

We offered to stay until after the op, but they said it could be several months away. We could always fly back when the time came.

So off we went. To France, then Belgium, Holland, and Germany, into eastern Europe, did two Anglovilles, had Dory to stay, moved on down into Slovakia, and then we got a phone call.

It was Monday 7th August, and they had just been told that Kit could be operated on that Thursday morning. It was too expensive for both of us to go home, and someone needed to stay with the van anyway. As I can’t drive Georgie, the logical person to stay was Steve.

So the next day, I flew Wizz Air to Luton. Which was certainly whizzy, if a bit crap in the comfort department. The air crew girls were incredibly nice and stunningly beautiful – I felt I’d gone back in time to the days of ‘Catch me if you can’.

And hadn’t Sky grown!

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I had a wonderful week with her – which went much more smoothly once I figured out that she didn’t actually sleep in her own bed. You can’t imagine the indignation from her when I first tried that (for indignation, read ‘screaming’). But once that was sorted, we settled into a nice routine and I got to be a very spoilt nana.

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And little Kit – who is incredible brave and a total sweetie – had his operation and it all went perfectly. Thank all the Gods.

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They didn’t remove the whole thing (which is best practice, apparently), so he may have to have a further op, sometime in the distant future. They have hinged a tiny piece of his skull so they can go back in again if they need to, with much less stress and trauma. How brilliant is that?

After the op, he was groggy, and in pain, and off his food, not surprisingly. He developed an impressive black eye, and his throat was sore from the anaesthetic. He is the most active child I have ever encountered, so his parents did an amazing job keeping him occupied whilst in bed and wired up to stuff.

He was discharged on Sunday 13th August. And look at him now.

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Awwww. Bless.

Next time I’ll catch up a bit more (been very off-grid) and tell you about the cities we’ve been visiting. But to keep you happy for now, here are my two new favourite road signs, spotted in Budapest (I loves me a good road sign).

And – while I’m doing silly photos – how about this leaflet for Haemorrhoids from a pharmacy in Zagreb, and the ice-cream that Steve just bought me.

Thanks for reading xxxxx.

 

 

The Dory story

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ONCE UPON A TIME…

Steve’s daughter, Rosie, is one of those warm and lovely people that attract lots of other warm and lovely people. And then she looks after them all, so they stay in her life forever (my sister-in-law is the same, so I’m doubly blessed). This is Rosie with one of her twins, our granddaughter, Sky.

 

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When we were still living in Midford, we got a call from Rosie asking if we could help her friend Dory, who was stuck in Bristol with nowhere to stay. Of course we said yes, and Steve set off in the car to rescue said damsel in distress. An hour later, a whirlwind of a woman blew into our lives. No other way to describe it.

Dory is a fast-talking American lady. A one-time restauranteur in Munich, a stand-up comedienne, an eco-warrior and squatting-rights expert, and a million other things besides. She’d tidy and clean my house when I was at uni (thank you sooooo much), put garlic and ginger in my hot lemon drink (oh no, no, no), give Steve decaf coffee ’cause she thought he was drinking too much (Steve was surprisingly polite about this), and generally entertain us. This is Dory.

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She stayed for a few months and then we said a sad goodbye to her, as we said goodbye to England, trekking off in Georgie, fourteen months ago. And though she’d always be our friend now, too, we thought our time with her was over.

BUT THEN…

Earlier this year Dory’s texts started to cause me concern. She still had no permanent place to live, and was couch-surfing or being a live-in helper. Her health was suffering – she talked of kidney stones and an ulcer, of losing weight and hair. And she often sounded very down. I was worried.

When she’d lived with us she’d talked of a friend in Warsaw who was constantly on at her to come over. He said he could get her a job, no problem, everyone he’d recommended got snapped up and she was more qualified than any of them. So here was my thinking – we weren’t that far from Poland, we could detour that way. Give her a few weeks to recover herself and sort out what she wanted to do, put out some feelers, do some research. Try out some Helpx volunteer work, perhaps? Whatever. I just felt she needed a safe place to stay while she worked out her future.

So I did what I always do (just ask my family) – I interfered and nagged a lot, and I mean A LOT.

The biggest impediment to her joining us was lack of a passport, hers having been stolen many moons ago. So that was my first nag-athon. In the end, another mate of hers sorted it all out with her, and paid for it too. People can be so kind, don’t you think?

Once the passport issue was resolved, Rosie organised a JustGiving page to help fund her journey over to us. Some more lovely folks contributed, and I found cheap ways for her to travel. However, it meant a very long day to get to us as we were in Slovakia by then – about fourteen hours in total. Well done, Dory.

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We’d nearly finished at our first Angloville teaching course when Dory arrived. She slept for most of her first day, naturally, but then came and socialised with us all in the evening. She and the Blonde hit it off straight away and went off to annihilate the others at foosball. This was fine because Steve was having his chest stroked by the Voluptuous One, and I was just falling-down drunk, having played too much of ‘The Game’ unawares (see previous posts!).

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ANGLOVILLE 2

Three days later we were doing our second Angloville, in Poland. Dory had gone down with a bug, or was just incredibly over-tired, because she slept a lot that week too. This was fine because we were able to leave her undisturbed, but could still see her in our breaks and in the evening. She’d do helpful things like hide my onions. Don’t ask.

She got to meet some of the participants, and came and joined us on the last night again. This time she really connected with some of the people, and I could tell that even after such short acquaintance, she’d be keeping in touch with several of them, and them with her. I was delighted for her.

AND SO OFF WE WENT AGAIN…

To a nice campsite on the banks of the Danube, to make a PLAN.

Dory had seen how much fun we’d had with Angloville and wanted to try that for herself, and apparently there was one happening near Warsaw, very soon. Well, what a coincidence – Dory could check out that job her friend was always on about, go and do the course, then come back to her friend’s place after and take it from there. If the job was a go-er then she could hang on there, or come back to us (depending on the start date).

And what if she didn’t like the job, or it was no longer viable (said friend having been a bit incommunicado)? Well, she declared that she had other friends and family back in Houston, that wanted her to stay and could help her find work. So she’d go home. We could sort her a ticket from Warsaw. Bit pricey, but worth it to know she’d be all right.

Well, ok then. We agreed we’d hang around a bit nearby until she knew more about her future plans. We didn’t want to go too far out of reach, in case she ended up with nowhere to stay again. But we were booked to do an Angloville in Bucharest in a few weeks time, and it was a long drive, so we couldn’t hang on indefinitely.

AND YOU KNOW WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THE BEST LAID PLANS…

I should have known it was all too easy.

For a start, she went to Warsaw on the coach, but it broke down. And so it took twelve hours without a loo break. Poor thing was so dehydrated and ill from the journey, she didn’t know which way was up, let alone be fit to sort out any job stuff.

So off she went to Angloville with all of us none the wiser as to the job in Warsaw. But, luckily, she was paired off with a fantastic woman from Krakow, henceforth to be known as The Angel, and they absolutely  clicked.

And here’s where it all got a bit muddled for me.

Dory said that she reckoned The Angel was going to offer her a job – she just had a feeling about it from things that had been said. And that she didn’t want to go back to the States.

Wait, what?

And actually, she’d been asked to help out on the next Angloville somewhere else, possibly Germany, she wasn’t sure. And she’d agreed.

Wait, what the actual fuck? You don’t know where it is, how you’ll get back, where you’ll go to next, and we can’t wait much longer. What about the PLAN?

PLAN is now FUCKED and I am panicking.

I have brought my completely broke friend over to Eastern Europe, and basically stranded her here with a load of strangers. I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHERE SHE ACTUALLY IS! I feel so guilty I can barely sleep.

Dory is perfectly calm, which freaks me out even more. ‘Just chill, Bev, it’ll all work out. I’ve got a really good feeling about this.’

I vent to Rosie because I am now in full headless-chicken mode, ‘Help, help, I don’t know what to do!’ etc.

BUT OFF GOES DORY TO ANOTHER ANGLOVILLE…

And we have to start driving. We try not to go too far, and find a campsite at Jasow, near Kosice. This is on the way to Bucharest, but not so far along that we couldn’t hive off and go to Budapest, if necessary. It is the farthest I can face going at the moment. We make new friends. We explore the town and the monastery and the caves.

I try not to worry. She is a grown woman and I am probably being a bit over protective. It is her life, she can do what she wants. And when we talk she tells us to get driving, get on with our lives, not to worry about her (how is that possible?).

So, in the end, we do.

AND GUESS WHAT?

She was right and I was wrong. How effing brilliant is that. Because serendipity is alive and kicking in this story.

The Angel did set her up with a phone interview, to teach English at a Montessori school in Weiliczka, near Krakow in Poland. Which went really well. As did the second interview. So well, in fact, that the principal found her somewhere to live and paid for the first month’s rent for her. They’ll also organise some evening work for her too, teaching English to the parents, for extra money.

AND SO THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER…

And Dory has been Facebooking how happy she is, and how much she loves her new home. She is excited about her finally stable future and has made a shedload of friends through Angloville. There’s even a cat that visits her. So it’s all good.

And we are in Hungary, because we had to cancel our own Angloville in Bucharest. But that is another story.

NEXT TIME: Hurrying to London.

 

 

Angloville 2: My LOVELY wife

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(I’ve covered most of how Angloville runs in my previous blog, but as each one is different, here are the highlights.)

Although we totally failed to walk to Poland in my last Angloville (distracted, as we were, by cheap booze and haribo), we finally make it to southern Poland and it is beautiful. Loads of steep-roofed, four-storey houses covered in intricate patterns of timber and stone. I’m fairly certain that everyone has a cow in their front garden or, failing that, at least a couple of sheep. At dusk we see perfectly normal people wandering up the street carrying huge buckets and milking stools.

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As we drive to the hotel we pass a traditional wedding party, with everyone riding in beautifully decorated horse-drawn carriages, and wearing national costumes.

The cavalcade is led by two men on horseback, singing loudly in rich, tenor harmonies. They are followed by a six-piece band in a covered wagon: the musicians try desperately to keep their violins and cellos from bashing together, as the horses sway along the road.

Next are the happy couple in a white open-topped carriage pulled by four smart, white, horses bedecked with roses, ribbons and brasses. Although they smile and wave, both the bride and groom are terribly busy on their mobile phones.

Then come the wedding guests. The males sport camel-coloured, heavily embroidered suits, with trousers that split at the ankles and spread over their shoes, all topped off with black, round-brimmed hats and loose-sleeved shirts. The females have brilliantly flowered skirts, with matching shawls, and lace-up bodices.

The whole thing is joyously colourful and exceedingly relaxed. We stand and watch as the horses gently wander up the hill, and the strains of some unfamiliar folk song drifts back to us.

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Now, the co-ordinator needs a mention here – not just because he was brilliant at his job – but because he looked just like Ryan Gosling with a bit of Ryan Reynolds thrown in.

And his name was Ryan. I’m not even joking.

On the first day he took care to warn us about ‘The Game’ – the Polish participant’s habit of getting the native speakers as drunk as possible. We were allowed to miss a session if we were genuinely ill, but not if we’d played ‘The Game’. Fair do’s. Realised now that the Voluptuous One from the last Angloville had been giving that a good shot, just before she confronted Steve’s nipples.

THE FOOD – BETTER THAN LAST TIME?

Oh hell, yes, what a change! Each meal was an all-you-can-eat buffet with loads of choice, including two or three salads with every meal (even at breakfast). As we had a high percentage of vegetarians and vegans on the course, it was such a relief. The coffee was awful, which proves you can’t have everything, but I was one happy bunny.

ONE TO ONE’S

We had a much larger group, so it was harder to get to know everyone the way we had on our first experience, but they were just as lovely and hard-working.

Had a very interesting session with a lady who told me about a massive crush she’d developed on a much younger man (and what came of it), and another with a mother of three young children, who described them as ‘sweet little energy vampires’. Pretty good grasp of English, that.

I still had my work cut out for me though, especially with one chap. He was middle-aged, and quite tough looking. Not someone you’d think to mess with. Most of the week he was seen wandering around the hotel spa in a bathrobe, and the general consensus was that this was a cheap holiday for him and he wasn’t that bothered about learning English. My one to one with him was nearly over in ten minutes.

‘I answer all questions, what you want, is done.’

‘No, we still have forty minutes, so let’s just talk, ok?’

Shit. What are we going to talk about? But I persevered, and we discovered that if you look at his house on Google maps, you can see one of his hunting dogs. So, that was useful.

After each session, Ryan would give us a small form to fill in detailing what the participants strengths and weaknesses are, and what we think they need to work on. I looked at the paper for ages, and in the end I wrote:

Honestly, no idea. Think I may have spent an hour with a very charming ex-gangster.

OUR MENTEES

I met up with Steve later and told him about the lovely girl I was going to be mentoring: young, sweet, enthusiastic and funny, with some great pictures of a sky-diving day that she could build her presentation around. I asked who he’d been allocated?

‘The Gangster. And all he wants to talk about is what he kills when he goes hunting, and I keep telling him he can’t because of the vegetarians, so he buggers off to the spa.’ Nearly snorted my tea out of my nose.

THE LOCATION

We are perched on the top of a hill with a wonderful view of the mountains. At the end of the road is a beautiful church, a sweet little chapel, and a stunning cemetery. The church is famous for being linked to a major one in Prague and is a place of pilgrimage. The Sunday we were there it was absolutely packed, with people lining the grounds and path outside, all standing silently (even the children) to hear the service taking place inside.

The whole place was a forest of honey-coloured wood, each surface carved by hand. And the little chapel, with its separate bell-tower, was the same – even the lampshades were made from slats of fan-shaped wood.

But the cemetery – wow. They really like plastic flowers here, plus enough candle-lit lanterns to light a small city. Sounds tacky and it actually was, I suppose, but it was also joyous and celebratory and how I’d like my grave to look, (though a plastic Bambi and a hip-swivelling Hawaiian dancer better find its way in there too. Just saying.)

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PRESENTATIONS

We had some brilliant presentations that showed just how hard everyone had worked. My girl got us all laughing with her sky-diving story, and she looked so delighted: I was really proud of her. Last up was the Gangster, and none of us knew quite what to expect.

‘I am successful businessman but for weekends I go to my house in forest. I take my dogs – here is picture of my dogs. I take my children. I take my gun. And I take my LOVELY wife.’

He proceeded to describe looking for animals in the forest – to photograph them. This was Steve’s intervention, I knew. Each time he mentioned his wife as an afterthought, but with great emphasis. By the third time, he simply had to cup his hand around his ear and look expectantly at the audience who all chimed in unison, ‘my LOVELY wife’.

By the end of the story, he’d been confronted by a bear, saved his dogs, chased away the bear, ‘See, here is picture of bear from CCTV camera‘. Big gasp, not kidding, genuinely impressive. ‘And final, here is picture of my family. Here are dogs. Here are children. Here is car. Here is house. Oh, and here is….?’

‘MY LOVELY WIFE!’ we all yelled. Well done Gangster. Well done Steve.

THE AFTER PARTY

Well, we all played ‘The Game’ a bit. There was a lot of dancing. One lithe young lady was a hula-hooping yoga teacher, who’s sinuous moves looked almost impossible. One chap was a fantastic break-dancer. Another refused to take Steve’s reluctance to dance seriously, scooped him up in his arms, carried him to the dance floor, and plonked him down in the middle. It was a good night. Maybe a bit too good for some people as the next day, at the certificate ceremony, some of them could only lie on the floor clutching their heads and looking weepy and green.

And that was it. Another Angloville. Another country. Another wonderful set of people and experiences. We still had a van full of Dory and a shed-load of laundry, but it was time to move on.

In my next blog I’ll tell you the Dory story, and how we ended up in Slovakia again.

 

 

 

Angloville 1: the dumpling days

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WHAT’S AN ANGLOVILLE, WHEN IT’S AT HOME, I HEAR YOU ASK?

And I shall tell you, because I’m nice that way.

Angloville is a company that runs immersive courses in English, for people who have a goodish grasp of the language already but need to improve their confidence, fluency or pronunciation. So you spend several days with them, doing various exercises, but English is to be spoken at all times. Simples. And playing to my strengths, if I do say so myself.

We signed up for two weeks and trollied off to High Tatras, in Slovakia. We’d been offered a hotel room, which we’d decided to accept as our friend Dory would be turning up on Thursday, from the UK. She’d have Georgie all to herself, and get time to recover from her fairly strenuous travels, in peace.

HOTEL MONTFORT

What a place. What a view. The ‘chalet’ next door belonged to the President. Our room was great, the bed was comfortable, and the blinds were good and dark. We had a  balcony with a view of the Tatras (and foxes skipping over the lawn from the woods), and a pool, spa, and games room were downstairs. Well, colour me happy.

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DAY ONE – SUNDAY

At one pm, Steve and I were in the lobby as the bus pulled in. There were a lot of people as two groups were going to be running in tandem: an adult group and a kids group. We’d offered to do either, but they said that we were WAY TOO OLD to work with the kids – cut off age for volunteers was thirty-five. So that was us told.

We milled around and introduced ourselves to people. I actually felt a bit shy, but Steve was off like a Cuban Ambassador. Every time I turned around he was animatedly talking to another pretty woman. So, after a few fairly stilted conversations I went to join him, and was introduced to The Blonde.

‘Oh my God, this is crazy, right?’, she gushed, with a sexy accent, and at a speed that I didn’t realise was possible, especially in a second language. We may have got her entire life history in about twenty seconds, which was some achievement as a lot of the words were ‘fuck’. But she was fabulous, and I adored her, and we got on like a house on fire.

At lunch we were instructed to sit at mixed tables – two native speakers to two programme participants. This was a little strange for all newbies, so I’ve forgotten what we had for lunch. If only I could say the same about the rest of the food we were served there. Oh boy.

After lunch we were given an intro to the programme. As I walked into the room wearing my swanky lanyard (always wanted one of those) I was told that I’d already been requested as a mentor. Oh yes? By whom?

‘There’s my mentor,’ yelled The Blonde, with a dazzling smile, and actually jumped out of her seat as if I was George Clooney covered in chocolate. Steve got allocated Mr Muscles, a physiotherapist with a shy demeanour and a good sense of humour. A promising start, I thought. Bang on.

ONE-ON-ONES

A large part of the week was going to be fifty minutes conversation, on various topics, with a single individual. My first one was easy because I had Mrs Fit-and-Fabulous, and the topic was all ‘who are you/what do you do/why are you here/what do you hope to achieve?’ and then it was dinner time.

DAY TWO – MONDAY

MENTOR MEETINGS

The first exercise every morning was to spend 50 minutes tutoring our mentees. They were all required to give a presentation on the coming Thursday afternoon, and so the first order of business was to decide on a topic. It could be anything they liked.

The Blonde wanted to talk about what she’d learned in her life, (‘I was very stupid young girl, so fucking stupid, you know? But now I am smarter’) in the twin mediums of speed-talking and pop songs. Fine by me. We rehearsed Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Wanna Have Fu-un, and Queen’s We Are The Champions. I taught her It’s Been A Hard Day’s Night by the Beatles (‘who?’) and we found a way to squeeze in some Jessie J. This teaching lark rocked.

MORE WORK

The day’s schedule of one-on-ones and group activities gave us a break just after lunch, but then carried on until 7.30 in the evening. In the group work we had to imagine ourselves shipwrecked on a desert island, with only a specific selection of tools washed up on the beach to help us. Did we stay on the island or try to build a raft?

My group opted to leave, another group chose to start a new community, and The Blonde’s group decided to stay – but be very depressed about this. So much so that they called their patch of rock the ‘Island of kill yourself’, and it featured a particularly high cliff that was the designated ‘place for kill yourself’.

By dinner time everyone was starting to flag. Lunch had been a weird soup that genuinely looked like dishwater, followed by one chicken drumstick and a tea-cup of rice. None of your five-a-day fruit and veg here. (Unfortunately, we’d cleared out our fridge rather than have food go manky while we were in the hotel.) So we were all tired and hungry.

DINNER

On the table were small glasses of some pinkish fruit juice with half a dozen bits of tinned fruit cocktail dolloped in. The strawberries (?) were a mauve grey. I downed that in ten seconds and waited. Eventually my plate arrived and on it were five beige-coloured things the size of plums, sprinkled with – yes, it definitely was – icing sugar. I’ll say that again: my main course was sprinkled with icing sugar.

I cut open the beige thing to find, I don’t know – possibly rhubarb, or some kind of jam? I ate one. All I could manage. And that was it – meal over.

I looked over to the next table. One of the volunteers was a highly educated and intellectual guy who spoke five languages. He was also a vegetarian. ‘And I don’t eat desserts’, he told me, looking very hungry and rather dazed from the strains of the day.

And then I realised there was uproar all around me. The Blonde was absolutely appalled at the quality of the food. She was paying a great deal of her own money to do this course, and she was embarrassed that her country was showing itself in such a bad light to the native speakers.

And she wasn’t alone. Nearly everybody was complaining, especially the younger lads. Not enough protein was a big problem with regard to energy levels – especially for the young people who had a much more active course. The lack of fruit and veg was also causing it’s own difficulties. Meetings went on all night, and we were assured that something would be done about it. So Steve and I headed off to our room and ransacked the mini-bar.

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DAY THREE – TUESDAY

Food was the topic of the day. All day. Discussions were still raging and emails were flying back and forth to Angloville head office. Most of the participants had threatened to pull out, and demanded full refunds unless they were given decent food. We were volunteers, so didn’t have much in the way of bargaining power, but it seemed they were taking it seriously.

We each got a mail saying that from then on, the portions of meat would be increased from 130g to 150g per person. Well, be still my beating heart.

And there’d be fruit bowls.

And even sandwiches if we needed them (though we never saw those).

We were also encouraged to consider that the local cuisine would obviously be unfamiliar to us, and to give it a try before passing judgement. My judgement was that it seemed to be the locals that were the most pissed off about it.

At lunchtime, The Blonde and all the other participants who’d complained were segregated off into a private dining room. They had food from the very nice hotel menu, complete with wine and beer and anything they wanted. I’m not sure who was to blame for our obviously penny-pinching menu – the hotel, or the Company – and I don’t really care. People do their best, and sometimes they fuck up. That’s life. But the people with the pull got really good food that week.

We were still in the dining room, though, when they brought out bowls of fruit. We had to fight our way through a stampede of teenagers to grab a kiwi fruit and an unripe banana. The Intellectual was given a tuna salad. When he said – again – that he was a vegetarian, they exchanged the tuna for a bowl of iceberg lettuce with two olives – two! – and a piece of feta cheese the size of a Xmas postage stamp. Well, that was him sorted then.

DAY FOUR – WEDNESDAY

By now, we’d all adjusted to the routine and had started to make some good friendships. The food had been a little better and we were feeling much more rested. So we decided to walk to Poland. As you do. Apparently, it was not far away, possibly two or three miles, and some fresh air felt like a good idea.

However, just twenty metres from the bridge that formed the border, was a little shop. And in that little shop were all the essentials that the locals need, i.e. booze, and lots of it, major stocks of Haribo, some crisps, some fags, and a lot of products made from cannabis.

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Mrs Fit-and-Fabulous introduced us to the local tipple, which is a kind of brandy made from tea. I think Tetley’s are missing a trick because this stuff is lovely. And can be up to 72% proof. It’s called Tatratea and I’m drinking it now, as a matter of fact. If my spelling goes all to pot, that will be why.

So we never made it to Poland, but giggled and wove our way back to the hotel in time for another crappy lunch.

NEGOTIATIONS AND TELEPHONE SESSIONS

As part of the programme, there are several structured exercises that are likely to be the most useful to the participants. For Negotiations I was paired up with a rather voluptuous woman with a permanent smile and bedroom eyes. Ever so nice. She was given instructions to ask me for a raise, while I was instructed to offer incentives, and other bonuses instead. Thus the negotiations would ensue. The Voluptuous One kicked off.

‘I vant more money. You give me’.

Me – ‘Well I’m afraid I’m not authorised to offer more than another ten thousand. How do you feel about that?’

‘No!’

What? Where’s that smile gone?

‘I vant twenty thousand. You give me now’.

‘Er, how do you feel about more holidays and a bonus-scheme linked to performance, with a review in two years?’

‘NO!!!! I VANT MORE MONEY. YOU GIVE ME! I AM PERFECT’. You get the gist. This went on for some time, and then I fired her. The Voluptuous One said this was fine as she’d just go and work for our competitor across the road.

I fared no better in the Telephone Sessions. These are conversations held back-to-back, so that the participants get no clues from your facial expression. The scenario supplied was about a child being disciplined, by the school, for cheating on an exam. My job was to phone the parent and call them in to discuss the action to be taken.

Of course, I was paired with Supermum.

‘My child would never do such a thing, I can’t believe it, you must be wrong’. Puts the phone down.

So I really needed dinner to be good.

DINNER

And it was dumplings again!

This time there were more of them as we’d been promised bigger portions. And these were filled with poppy seeds, so a black sludge formed across your plate when you cut into them. Honestly, I couldn’t even manage one this time. So I cracked. I grabbed the proper menu and ordered some Bruschetta and got it stuck on our bill.

Steve saw me eating it and said to his neighbour, ‘Oh, my wife will share that with me‘. No, she bloody wouldn’t, get your own. Don’t know if he did. Don’t care.

DAY FIVE – THURSDAY

This was the day that everyone did their presentations. The Blonde and I had made masks which I would hold up at the appropriate moments in her story. I have it on tape, so if anybody wants to see how brilliant she was, and how I completely messed up by picking up the wrong ones, just ask. But I was very, very proud of her.

Steve’s chap, Mr Muscles, did a demonstration of physio on The Intellectual. He got a bit carried away by the interest of the audience, and kept showing more and more poses and holds. At one point he had his finger jabbed into a pressure point on The Intellectual’s neck, and was searching for the right English words to say that it allowed the muscle to loosen. However, he may have taken more time than was comfortable, because, after a while, The Intellectual’s eyes started to pop a bit and he kept saying ‘OW!’, louder and louder. The Voluptuous one – also a physiotherapist – kept moving her chair closer to the front, ready to intervene if necessary.

PARTY TIME

That night, everyone was in a great mood. My friend had arrived from the UK and was downstairs playing foosball with Mr Muscles and The Blonde.

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The Voluptuous One was steadily filling our glasses with wine, and having a nice chat with Steve about his recovery from his heart bypass, twenty years ago. At one point, she ripped his t-shirt up and ran her elegant fingers over his scar, checking out his levels of scar tissue, (so she said). Then she suddenly noticed his nipples had gone hard (the room was cold, ok?), and shrieked with laughter. I think it made her day. Might have made Steve’s too, I’m not enquiring too closely. Later on I tried to open Georgie with my car keys for nearly ten minutes.

DAY SIX – FRIDAY

On our last day we had a few one-to-one sessions, some feedback paperwork, and lots of sad goodbyes. It was a fabulous time and I count myself very privileged to have been there. These are just some of the guys who made it great.

The next day we drove back up into Poland for Angloville 2: My Lovely Wife. I’ll tell you all about that soon.

Thanks for reading xxxxx

Oh Vienna

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A WORD ABOUT ROAD SIGNS

In Portugal the road signs were fairly familiar: they were just applied in surprising ways. Don’t graze your cattle on the motorway, was a good example.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia they were the old-fashioned kind, with more detail than in the UK. The trains still showed great clouds of steam and the bicycles were practically perfect. The men depicted were always natty gents in suits, sporting trilbies, and holding skipping children by the hand. The girls had huge bows in their hair and the boys wore those girly coats that only the Royal family still favour.

In Austria, the flashing signs on the pelican crossing depicted two people holding hands, with a heart between them. Even Steve thought that was cute.

But in Poland the signs changed again. The first one I noticed was the cow – he was made out of rectangles, as if an impatient person had cut him out of black paper and stuck him down. I imagined the justification:-

‘What your problem? You can see is cow, is good enough. Now I go home.’

After a while I noticed that all the illustrations were angular, apart from the round, football-shaped heads which floated – dismembered – above pointy-footed bodies. There was also a crazily-smiling, pig-tailed girl, wielding a head-sized lollipop in the manner of a hatchet. She appeared near zebra crossings and was really quite freaky.

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BUT BACK TO AUSTRIA

After Barry let us down on our Helpx placement we had some time free for ourselves. We decided to go and see Vienna, as I’ve never been and it’s, well, Vienna.

So we fetched up at a suburb just north of the city, called Klosterneuberg. It’s on the Danube and has a spectacular monastery overlooking the campsite. We went for a quick walk around and it was beautiful. The tiles on the roof formed a pattern that turned into pure, sparkling, silver in the setting sun.

Inside, the various sections were all decorated to the nines, with different colour schemes in each room, and every vaulted facet beautifully painted.

It was just as well that the monastery was so nice, because then we found a café to have a late lunch in. OK, I know it was Sunday, but after Czechia it was still a bit of a shock. I think we were charged about 600 euros for a tiny slice of French bread with some sort of vinegary egg on it. Oh, the horror.

Back at the campsite bar that evening, we met our next-caravan-neighbour, Rudi. We’d hoped to have a meal there (as we were too tired to cook) but had arrived too late. Rudi kept insisting he had food, he would cook for us, no trouble. But we couldn’t be bothered even with that, so instead we had cake, and wine, and a nice chat.

We invited him for dinner the next night (he bought beer, wine and schnapps – good man) and we talked about volunteering. Apparently, he has done A LOT of fund-raising, and almost single-handedly paid for a school in Tibet (principally because he fancied the blonde who was volunteering there. I’m not judging).

He got a bit over-happy on the schnapps, started talking only to me, and told Steve to watch out because – and I quote – I was dangerous. It seems I have a mysterious allure, but I’ve noticed it only works on blokes over seventy.

The next day we went to look at Vienna. I nearly killed Steve by encouraging him to climb the 343 steps up the bell tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Once up there, we saw a guy wandering along the ridge of the incredibly pitched roof, doing some repair work. Don’t care if he had a rope around him – still an idiot. Also saw a cute couple of pigeons doing some family planning.

The view of the city is certainly impressive. I think everyone here lives in an amazing building, even the dustmen, because every house is stunning.

Sadly, we’d arrived in Vienna too late to see the snow-coloured, dancing, Lipizzaner horses, which had gone to the country for the summer. But we did see lots of carriage horses, so that was nice.

We passed a church that had beautiful choral music wafting out. An American choir was on tour with a famous-and-important-composer, so we sat in on the rehearsal. Afterwards, I told the famous-and-important-composer how much I’d enjoyed it and he kissed my hand. Honestly, I am catnip to these old guys.

HUNTING FOR WOOL

When my CFS makes things difficult I do needlepoint tapestries, and I’d nearly finished my second one when I ran out of a particular blue wool. So Steve Googled wool shops for me, and we set off to spend at least a euro. And found nothing. Nada. Nil. Plenty of weird crocheted things and frankly terrifying lace objects, but no blue wool. Back at the campsite we were told, ‘Go to Muller, they have everything’, and they were not wrong.

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Muller is a big warehouse that mostly stocks fabric and thread, lace, ribbons and buttons. Also, a million other things that I can’t imagine anybody wanting to have. They had shelves full of the kind of thing that doesn’t even sell in a charity shop, and you only consider buying – as a joke present – for someone you hate (or is that just me?). They had a real of tan-coloured yarn that a mouse had eaten into, and it was still for sale!

There were whole walls of buttons – mostly brown, it must be said – and aisles of ribbons. It covered two floors, spilled out onto the street (for which read dirt-road car park), and surrounded some steps, open to the air, on one side.

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Tidiness was not a priority.

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Nor was service. But it was incredibly cheap, and I found a good match for my wool in a massive bin that I had to dive down. Sorted.

ARTY STUFF

We went to the Wien Museum to see the Klimts, and were promptly distracted by a fascinating exhibition showing the history of the city as depicted by maps and relief models.

Then it was on to the Hundertwasser Museum and house. Hundertwasser was an architect who believed that the curves and undulations in nature produced a more natural way to live. So none of the floors are flat. Even in the café.

He also wanted every building to have a ‘tree tenant’, so they are built into the structures and given priority over other things. But it’s his sense of joyous, abundant colour that really did it for me. And, although none of his paintings are quite my style, the effect of seeing so many works of rich exuberance was food for my soul.

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The museum also housed an exhibition by celebrated photographer, Edward Burtynsky, on the subject of water in all its glorious forms. Marvellous, dramatic, thoughtful, inspiring. Good day out, that was.

P.S.

I know this post is both out of date and rather short, but I am struggling to find good WiFi in my particular part of Poland. Will tell you all about the festival in Trencin, teaching English through Angloville, finding Dory, and the now famous ‘Food Revolution’ as soon as I can. In the meantime, take care, love to all, and thanks for reading. xxxxx

The Five-Petaled Rose

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We were all set to move on to our first Helpx placement (assisting Barry in setting up his Music and Art Centre), when Barry bailed. Why? Because our van is too big. Had we told him about the size of Georgie? Only a gazillion times. Numerous emails had contained sentences like:-

‘Our motorhome is ten metres long. That’s ten whole metres. Read it again to make sure you’ve got this – ten metres.’

‘Yes, I understand and it’s no problem.’

‘That means we need room to turn, and no low bridges, or 3.5 ton limits. And did we mention it’s ten metres long?’

‘Yes, absolutely fine. No problem.’

And so the day before we are due to set off, Barry says:-

‘Your van is too big. Sorry. Gotta cancel.’ Flake.

So we stayed another few days in Chvalsiny, while we decided how to fill our time before our next placement at the beginning of July.

MEDIEVAL CESKY

And how fortuitous was that, because we caught the opening night of the Five-Petaled Rose Celebrations in Cesky Krumlov! This takes place every year and is a three day festival in honour of the Rosenbergs, the five-petaled rose being their insignia. Lots of medieval costumes, and parades, and jousting, and hog-roasts, and people selling huge amounts of weaponry, and mad gothic music. And belly dancing, no idea why, but who cares.

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The Rosenbergs arrive

 

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The tiny town was full of seriously over-excited Chinese tourists having their photo taken with Czechs in frocks.

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The town square held the main stage and, when we arrived, a series of dances were being performed by the ladies of the local Exotic and Oriental Dance School. So, lots of belly dancing, and lots of other dances that used props like beautiful fringed shawls or swords balanced upon heads, but as far as I could see were basically variations of belly dancing.

Then a procession led by the Rosenbergs arrived to much fanfare and cheering. All the nobles were presented to the knobs, as kids squirmed in linen shirts and velvet dresses, and dogs tried hard to look regal whilst sniffing each other’s bottoms.

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There were definately some people that gave the impression they dressed like this all the time.

There were workshops for all things medieval; leatherwork, pottery, authentic food and medicine making, glass-work, etc., and of course the blacksmith – who showed us the best way to light a fag with a coal.

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The market had an abundance of armour and weapons on sale. Ranks of long-bows and crossbows, tons of hatchets, scimitars and swords, and a rather fetching brass bra.

Towards dusk, we wandered off to another stage set in a park. Arcus, a group described as playing Gothic music, came on and spent a fairly painful-sounding ten minutes tuning up two bagpipes and a couple of stringed things, one of which was played like a guitar, the other with a bow. Not a clue what they were, and also fairly doubtful that I was going to like Gothic music, or anything with too many bagpipes, but curiosity and beer kept me in my seat. They also had long leather skirty-trousers, which was a bit worrying.

But they were brilliant. And maybe it was the incessant quaffing I’d already done or just the mood of the festival, but once those drums started I didn’t give a toss that the tuning up had been largely unsuccessful. I just loved it.

And I wasn’t alone: the kids all started dancing, and whirling, and doing cartwheels in front of the stage. Then some of the mums joined in with their kids (in that way that says, ‘I can get away with dancing like crap because I’m dancing with a four year old and I’m lowering myself to that level. I’ve got moves, oh yes, just not doing them today’).

And then, oh joy, some of the velvet-clad, Anne Boleyn-bonneted ladies, (who clearly attended that dancing school), started twirling their hands and hips, and doing something vaguely belly dancer-ish, but with total abandon. Heads were flung back, arms shot up flamenco-style, and skirts were twirled until we saw the tops of their popsox. You had to be there, I tell you. Little boys got up on stage to show off their moves (or wave to their mums), encouraged by that tall hairy chap in the photo above. One little jerkin-clad moppet was so unspeakably cool that they got him to introduce their next song, and gave him and his mate free CD’s.

This all led nicely up to the torch-lit procession back through town, before the serious drinking got under way to the fire-eating and twirling show (with draped python???). We just had a brilliant time.

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BUT ALL GOOD THINGS…

We’ve loved Cesky but it was time to move on, so the next day we drove to Vienna as we’ve never been, and everyone says it’s beautiful. We crossed the border into Austria, and the first thing I saw was a doe, a deer, a female deer (stop it Bev, you are not Julie Andrews). But I did.

And now I have to go because, as ever, the WiFi is too slow. I will tell you what happened next very soon. XXXXX thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

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CHVALSINY

(Pronunciation: make the sound of someone clearing a hefty wedge of phlegm from your throat, whilst simultaneously being punched in the gut. Followed by val-sheeny.)

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We are at a lovely campsite just on the edge of the village. It has been run for the last 20 years by a Dutch couple, Jan and Arns (spelling? not a clue here). Naturally, it’s full of Dutch people, which is fine as many of them speak passable English and are generally very laid back.

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The village is typically southern Czech – a couple of pubs that serve good beer and cheap homemade food, a couple of shops (one of which is always a Coop), a massive and pretty church, and a couple of technicolour schools. They like the colour orange here (as an exterior paint colour), closely followed by yellow or lime green, and the schools are particularly colourful.

So are most new houses and flats – often painted in colour-blocked designs of orange (of course), yellow, pale pink, raspberry pink, lime, mauve, and terracotta. You really can’t miss them and they are not very nice, but I’ll give them an A+ for effort.

At the campsite we are surrounded by forested hills and open meadows, so we went for a walk in the woods. We saw a fox-sized, fox-coloured animal dart across the meadow, and disappear fox like, into the woods. Steve said, ‘I wonder what that was?‘ I mean, seriously?

We both heard the hammering of a Woodpecker, then the sound of chirping coming from a tree nearby. A Woodpecker’s nest, with hungry babies. We skirted away quickly, so as not to freak out the mum into deserting the nest. I was also delighted to see mounds of purple Lupins growing wild beneath the Pines, Silver Birches and Lime trees.

 

We passed the obligatory shrine, and then stumbled upon a couple of old railway carriages on the edge of the woods – and they hummed, loudly. One was being used as a massive bee-hive, the other as a shed by a lovely fellow called Jiri.

(pronunciation: Yeer-Zhee, and Czech for George).

My dad used to keep bees, so I know to walk slowly and keep the buggers out of your hair, because otherwise they will get stuck there and panic. Jiri invited us into his shed to see how he strained the honey and offered us some if we brought him a jam jar.

We walked back through the meadows, which were spectacular (like the ones you see in films that can’t possibly be real, only better). So many drifts of wildflowers in so many varieties. Butterflies, birds, weird and wonderful little striped bug things, and others that had bright orange arses and a tendency to hover around you like tiny drones. It was magical.

Steve took a jam jar up to the woods and then rolled back down the hill over two hours later. Jiri had produced, first, a beer, and then his home-brewed Rowanberry liqueur. 52% proof. Not a typo – genuinely, 52%! They had quite a few shots, enabling Steve to happily sit there with bees all over him, while a fully-outfitted Jiri went into the main carriage and pulled out racks of bee-cloaked honeycomb to show him the Queens in action. This is the pair of them after a few bevys.

Cesky Krumlov

(pronunciation: pretty much how it looks, except the C is a ch and the Krum is a kroom)

10km down the road from us is the medieval town and Unesco World Heritage Sight of Cesky Krumlov. Arns leads a guided walk there every Monday evening, so we went along to get the lowdown from a local. It started with us all congregating in a pub and having a beer, which is a very good start in my books. And it certainly is a lovely little place.

It nestles in the lee of a vast castle, built around 1250 by the powerful Rosenberg family who owned…everywhere, according to Arns, for about three centuries. The main gates are still guarded by two bears that prowl around a pit that extends under the bridge into the castle. A remnant of earlier times. But it is the gloriously decorated castle tower that dominates the landscape.

The Old Town itself is circled by a loop of the River Vltava. This means that on a sunny day you can sit in almost any pub, with a beer and a schnitzel in front of you, watching boat-loads of people scream their way over the weirs and then fall in the water – right in front of you. Good times.

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The Old Town is incredibly pretty, with many of the buildings being decorated either with paint, or with repeating tile patterns scraped into the stonework.

It was also the home of Egon Schiele’s mum, so there’s a nice museum with some of his work. For my birthday, we climbed up the castle tower for a view over the town.

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Sadly, ever since his stroke, Steve has had problems with balance and vertigo. And when we got to the top, he had a bit of a wobbly moment (well, a really huge one, actually), so we went back down.

But it was my birthday, so we went back up again. Aren’t I a cow?

THE WATER PUMP

(pronunciation: heap of shit)

Yesterday, we drove to the nearest caravan and camping shop to buy a new water pump, as the old one didn’t like its leak being ‘fixed’ by Steve, and decided to die instead.

Yesterday, we drove to the only caravan and camping shop in the Czech Republic.

And it was 150km away.

But Steve has installed the new one – and it makes a noise like an Apollo rocket lifting off, and the loo now flushes with a certain reluctance.

Grown-up problems. Sigh.

HELPX

Next week we are moving on to a place near Nepomuk (don’t ask, just Google it) to do some volunteering. Steve’s sister, Roxy, introduced us to Helpx, which is where people who need help with projects give you board and lodging in exchange for your muscle power. In this neck of the woods, that is mostly on organic farmsteads or other eco communities.

But we are going to meet Barry (yes, I know), who is setting up an Arts and Music Centre with the aim of using them to bridge cultural boundaries and language barriers. Steve is going to be installing a basic kitchen and I will be doing some decorating.

After that, we will be spending a couple of weeks helping groups in a ‘language immersion’ program improve their English.

Just by speaking to them.

Which I can SO do.

Talk about playing to ones strengths.

 

 

What do you mean, you’ve got no brakes?

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There are things one never wants to hear when travelling with a vehicle like Georgie; I’m stuck, I left the sewerage tap open, and I’ve lost your car keys again (last time we found them sandwiched between two frying pans) are hot favourites. But ‘I’ve got no brakes’? I’VE GOT NO BRAKES’?!? WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?!?

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We spend our last day in Holland doing a couple of the local sights. The campsite, at Valkenburg, is built over an old marl-stone mine, which has escape tunnels up to the ruined castle at the foot of the hill. So we take a guided tour around the mine, and have an English translation to fill us in on what the guy is saying. A helpful thing to hear, at this point, would be take a torch with you, or you won’t be able to read it.

There are the usual dinosaur jaws that have been dug up. Do we see them? Of course not – they are in a museum. What we do see is the artist’s imagining of the dinosaur, carved into the rock. Is is any good? Is it even remotely accurate? Hell, no.

But the paintings – wow! When, in 1853, the railroad came, so did the tourists and they wanted to explore the mines. To make it more attractive illustrations telling the story of a love triangle, that ended badly, were painted along the route. The walls were first coated with charcoal, then the artists rubbed it away until the details stood out. They are still perfect and absolutely beautiful.

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Eventually, the guide sees me struggling to read my translation, points his torch in my direction, and starts to tell me what he can in English. For instance, every year they hold a massive Christmas Market down in the mines, and it is said to be when old Reginald (the loser in the love-triangle, driven to murder and fratricide by jealousy – see pic of dead bride, above) puts in an appearance. A lot of people claim to have seen him, ‘but first you must have a lot of wine,’ says the guide, tapping his nose.

The tour finishes at the castle, which you can wander around at leisure before exiting through a very nice, balconied cafe. They’ve got this sussed.

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24 HOURS EARLIER

Before we left England I’d worked out a basic plan for our travels. I knew we would be likely to deviate (note the word and it’s meaning, Steve, it is not synonymous with totally ignore), and it would be dependant on, among other things, the political situations in the countries we were considering.

But I have found that if my husband is given too much choice, his blue-sky brain comes up with so many options it’s really difficult to pin him down. So instead of crossing straight over Germany to Vienna – as planned – I am now being asked to consider going to Prague, and then maybe up to Warsaw? Or did I want to go to Vienna first, and then around into Salzburg to do the Sound-of-music tour? Or Vienna first and then up to Prague? Or what about the Czech Republic, which isn’t even on our list and about which we know nothing?

So we choose the Czech Republic, of course.

We set off, leaving only a six foot long gauge in the road, and head to the motorway. Once there we find lots of roadworks, with new lane markings in bright yellow tape. I assume they are tape – rather than paint – because they have a tendency to veer off the road, up and across the grass verges, and then wibble back onto the road again. They also zig-zag outrageously, or just break off and curl around mid-lane.

Maybe this is why I encounter so many wanky-twat lorry drivers? They are perhaps suffering from lane-confusion (technical term). I meet quite a few lorry drivers these days, because they often comment to Steve about Georgie when we pull up at a truck stop. I saw one fellow stripped down to his vest, using his side mirrors to shave by. The guys from Poland often produce little stoves, protected from the wind by large cardboard boxes, on which they pile huge pans and cook collective meals. They unfold chairs from lockers underneath their rigs, and use an open bonnet as an awning.

In this habitat, they seem friendly and nice: but stick them behind the wheel and put them on the road behind me and they become wanky-twats again. They toot their horns, flash their lights, tail-gate me intimidatingly, and generally signal that they want me gone. I am a small woman in a very small car, and I can’t for the life of me work out what  I’m doing that they find so utterly objectionable: I’m keeping a safe distance from the vehicle in front and DRIVING AT THE SAME SPEED AS EVERY OTHER LORRY ON THE ROAD! Oh well.

We stop for the night at Rosi’s Autohof, where I am delighted to say I found more….

SERVICE STATION SHIT ……….for real.

You can actually buy cuddly shit. Not even joking. You know the doggy-do emoji? It comes in cushion form. And you have a choice – with or without sunglasses – because, you know, apparently some shit is cooler than other shit.

And who buys this? Wanky-twats.

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AND THE NEXT DAY STARTED SO WELL

We drive across the lovely Danube. The sun is scorching down and the land around me is beautiful. Copper-coloured, onion-domed churches nestle in fairy-tale villages, and the hills are cloaked with vast and impressive forests. I drive, open-topped, past fields of rapeseed the size of Wales, the scent so strong I am close to becoming Dorothy succumbing to the enchanted poppies.

Everything is lovely. More roadworks delay us but that is ok, because the sun is shining, the hills are lovely, yar-de-yar-de-yar.

I think – get this! – I actually wonder what my next blog is going to be about because everything is perfect. Why haven’t I learnt by now?

More roadworks. More sun. More hills, lots of them, because we are now off the motorway and into the Czech Republic (which, incidentally, appears to be the dandelion capital of the world: I honestly thought it was snow on the mountains).

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Everything’s getting a bit hot now, and taking a long time. More hills, which Georgie can manage, but very slowly. And the downhill roads aren’t the least bit straight, so lots of braking – really – lots.

And it is after we climb up one of the steepest hills, and have to follow a tractor with a trailer full of logs, going at 5 miles an hour all the way down; and after we’ve finally crested the next hill and are peeling off towards the next village below us: it is after this that the walkie-talkie crackles into life and Steve says, ‘I’ve got no brakes’.

And if you’re reading this, Simon (my brother-in-law), do you remember all those emails you sent us entitled ‘Ye be doomed’? Well, I suddenly thought, ‘Oh shit, he’s right’.

(pause for dramatic tension)

But we have emergency brakes, because Georgie is a big girl, and who wants her hurtling towards you, out of control? These brakes can stop Georgie, but you can’t drive with them like you would with normal brakes (I know stuff now). And you need them because the fluid in over-used brakes can get to boiling point and lose all its viscosity (see, I really do), and won’t, well, brake.

Somehow, Steve manages to safely manoeuvre Georgie down the hill, because he is an excellent driver in a crisis, and parks her on a grass verge. Right next to a ‘no waiting’ sign.

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Leaving the brakes to cool, and hoping that they don’t warp or seize up or anything, we Google-translate a quick note for the windscreen, and head off to the campsite. Having appraised them of the situation we head back into the darkening night, hoping that the brakes are now functional. Steve checks them out and, yay – bit soft, but ok. Phew!

AND SO WE ARE NOW CAMPING AT CVALSINY, IN THE CZECH REPUBLIC

We are planning to stop here for two or three weeks, so I’ve started cooking again. I make Imam Bayildi, adding feta cheese and sultanas. Then I poach some peaches in sugar syrup with white wine, vanilla, oranges and lemons. The smell is perfect heaven, so I call Steve in to have a whiff.

Oooh, bread!‘ he says. What? Are you mental? He sees the look on my face, and tries again. ‘Chicken?‘ Really, I despair.

I know that, since his heart bypass twenty years ago, he hasn’t been able to smell roses – all other flowers, just not roses. But now, it seems, that his sense of smell is getting much worse.

My Pollyanna brain perks up and says, this might be useful when we’re camping off-grid and water is a bit scarce for washing. I point out that MY sense of smell is perfectly all right.

She says, ‘oh yeah,’ and skulks back beneath my cerebellum.

 

 

Foray into foreign lands, no. 2

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FIRST, A BIG, BIG THANK YOU…

…to everyone who reads my blog. I am very touched by this obvious support from friends and family. I am also delighted by the number of people who haven’t a clue who I am, and yet read this anyway. Really – thanks. I assume you are using Google Translate, and so what I’ve written will make no sense to you whatsoever, but good on you for persevering.

Since I started, I have had readers from the UK, Spain, Ireland, the USA, France, Italy, Australia, Malta, the Cayman Islands, South Africa, Sweden, The European Union (?), Norway, Canada, Portugal, India, Japan, Bangladesh and Russia. Or I just have one friend who travels a lot (is that you, Katy?).

And I’d like to invite you all to send me questions about my travels to answer – anything that isn’t ‘are you enjoying it?‘ (because, well, that can vary).

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Hi from Bruges xxx

BUT WE ARE OFF AGAIN

And this time we are heading east, towards Istanbul. When I say that word it conjures up mystery, noise, romance, colour, the drifting scent of spice, and Indiana Jones lurking in a bar waiting for a terse moment with an exotic temptress.

My head also starts singing ‘Is it Istanbul or Constantinople?‘ Does anyone else have weird people that live in their heads? When I was young, I think I had a sort of bouncy animal controlling most of my actions, possibly a rabbit, I don’t know. I’ve had a few inmates since then: in tough times, someone like the nun from The Blues Brothers came and told me I was useless, and in better times it’s been more like that arrogant dickhead, Jerry Maguire.

But, luckily, time passes and I’ve grown up. And  although I’d like to say that the voice most often muttering in my ear resembles someone bright and brilliant (like Joan Bakewell, say, or Catherine Deneuve), who I really have is a potty-mouthed Pollyanna. Damn.

Take the other day:-

We met a lovely couple called Claire and Nick whilst we are camping in Antwerp. They have an almost identical motorhome to Georgie but theirs is called Sue Ellen – because she is American, and drinks a lot. They first spotted Georgie when we were down in Almerimar, but had no chance to say hello. They live in France, south of Poitiers, and travel whenever they can and now we are on the same campsite. We have a lovely chat and meet their friends.

In jumps Pollyanna.

I saw an otter!‘ I say, excitedly, ‘Just by the side of the road as we drove towards Poitiers’.

They exchange looks. ‘No you didn’t. that would have been a Coypu’. Wait, what? ‘Yeah, a Coypu. Basically, a huge rat. Nasty buggers, big teeth, bite your arm off’.

In jumps Pollyanna, again and she says to me – anyone can see an otter, right? Scotland is teeming with them, and all the zoos. Sod bloody otters. But a Coypu – don’t get many of them around Sevenoaks, do you!

I saw a Coypu!‘ I say excitedly. See what I mean? I find it helpful to let people know what kind of idiot they are dealing with.

Despite this, they come round for drinks and invite us to visit them if we are ever going up past Poitiers again. They don’t know us: we could be axe-murderers (we’re not), but they invite us anyway. Aren’t people lovely?

GET TO THE POINT, BEV

Oh yes. Well we set off through the Eurotunnel last Saturday, the 6th May, and I have to say that our new Walkie-talkies are brilliant. Can’t imagine how we managed without them. Steve has finally got used to the idea that I am not going to say ‘over‘, and that I generally sign off with ‘love ya‘. It is interesting to see who likes to have the last word.

Our first stop was Bruges, because everyone says how lovely it is, including Steve. And it was.

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The peaceful oasis of the Beguinage – built for women that wanted a solitary and contemplative life.

We paid a visit to the Basilica of the Holy Blood, because how can you resist a title like that? A fantastically ornate place, my pictures DO NOT do it justice.

And the Holy Blood? A glass vial tipped with gold, displaying some ancient rag with stains on it. Could be blood, could be Jesus’s, also might not be. When you consider how many hip bones of the saints are floating about, some of those guys had more hips than the late Queen Mother.

My money says this is the blood of a savvy little fella who spotted a good opportunity. And I like that. So we both queued up, paid a donation and touched the Holy Blood whilst saying a prayer. Or rather, we touched the glass case, over the glass vial containing the blood thing. Good enough.

The next day we drove to Antwerp. We had intended to go to Cologne, but I was having a bad energy day with my CFS so we decided to go somewhere closer. It was really interesting: not as pretty as Bruges but still impressive with some wonderful buildings.

The best can be seen down a street called Cogels-Oyslei – a whole block of perfect Art Nouveau mansions.

And there is always the diamond district for things even more interesting than diamonds. Funky looking tools and sexy machinery.

After fifteen seasons of Project Runway, we just had to visit the Fashion Museum. It was around the corner from Diane Von Furstenberg’s shop: Steve had a moment of silence as we passed.

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The current exhibition was the work of a designer called Martin Margiela. Absolutely wonderful. He worked for Hermes in the 80’s. He had coats that turned into capes, and had slits under the sleeves so your arms could come out. Basically, everything he designed could be worn in multiple ways. It was fabulous.

He also did his own, more punky stuff. There were silk dresses that had all the seams and darts on the outside, to show off the craftsmanship.

I rather liked this look – waders over black tights, over a white shirt, over leggings.

We also popped in to Dries Van Noten’s shop to see what designer frocks look like now. Steve didn’t like any of it, but, you know, I could have coped with some of it if I’d got the odd five grand lying around.

The M HKA was another must-see for us: the Museum of Contemporary Art. This had a Futurist’s collection of works that were compelling, witty, and intriguing.

We were both very taken with an automatic baby rocker. This device already exists – it was the way the artist re-made the packaging, added to the device, and produced the advertising pitch that was so brilliant. The strap line was now ‘ You make the babies: we make them awesome’. The piece explored a future where ‘our busy lifestyles’ meant we didn’t even have to touch the babies let alone get our hands dirty, whilst still raising little Einsteins.

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On our last day we had lunch in the lee of the Cathedral, in a restaurant called The Eleventh Commandment. Holy shit, this place was extraordinary. I don’t know how many churches they had to pillage at night, but the place was crammed from floor to ceiling with plaster saints and plenty of Last Suppers.

Apparently, the eleventh commandment was when Jesus told his disciples that ‘above all things‘ they were to ‘love one another as I have loved you’. Forgot that. Steve had to Google it. That’s 15 years of Sunday School down the drain then.

DOES MY BUM LOOK BIG IN THIS?

Well yes it does, because you are a Belgian Blue cow.

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Now, I hail from Devon and so I know what a cow is supposed to look like and this isn’t it. Initially, Steve noticed that all the cows we passed in the fields were sitting down.

But when we saw them standing up, it was a bit of a shocker; never seen such arses. And they looked barrel shaped – that’s not right.

So it turns out that they have a genetic mutation that causes them to be ‘double-muscled’, or big-arsed, barrel-shaped freaks of nature. Extra muscle, extra lean and tender, but weird to look at. No wonder they prefer to sit down.

 

P.S. POLLYANNA HAS A FRIEND

Yup. Sometime a sniggering, 13 year old schoolboy pops in for a visit. It was he who took these pictures in Antwerp, I swear to God.

 

HOLLAND

I am still struggling with exhaustion so we chose a shorter drive yesterday, this time to Valkenburg, near Maastricht. Steve has managed to find the only hill in Holland and we literally scraped into this campsite. The road bears the scars. I am deeply concerned that we may never get out again, because of the slope and camber of where we need to exit.

On the up side, there is a ruined castle at the bottom to the hill, and a tower with zip lines, a chair lift, a log run, and a restaurant, at the top.

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Georgie is 6th from the left

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Had one of those precious, perfect moments last night, while we were having a drink there. I had a beer in one hand and some chips in the other, I was gazing out over a very nice view, and the sun was shining. Suddenly, Tavares’ ‘Heaven must be missing and angel’ started playing, and a posey bloke, with a razor cut, spilt beer all over his sunglasses. Life just doesn’t get any better.

And so, until next time … love ya.