Category Archives: Georgie

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

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.

 

 

Homeward bound, and the head-board from hell

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I KNOW WHAT YOU ALL THINK

You think I’m swanning around having a lovely time. I know this because this is the exact phrase my friend Fabienne just used, and she didn’t want me to disabuse her with facts. And it’s true that, for a fair whack of the time, I am swanning around as much as is humanly possible.

Take Almerimar, for instance. This location is idyllic. The Aire is located on the road up to the lighthouse, with the beach on one side, the marina on the other, and all the cafes and shops bringing up the rear. Don’t believe it’s that nice? Here’s the view out of our windscreen.

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Told ya.

And – on a sunny day – I can wander up to the charity shop, or the supermarket, or the Chinese shop, and I pass dogs being promenaded and families chattering and small boys fishing for….. something, the way that small boys do.

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I watch Razorbills dive for fish, and Cormorants perch on anchor ropes, and it’s all blissful and lovely.

But that’s on a sunny day.

Because, even though it’s Spain, it’s still February.

And it’s mostly bloody windy. We tried flying a kite on the beach, but just ended up dragging gravel from one side of it to the other. The force of the gale was so strong that Steve opened the door and it slammed into the van, knocking a ceramic tile halfway across the floor, breaking the hold-the-door-open-thingy, and wedging the rubber ‘stop’ into the side of the van.

Our little pot of plastic stuff that needs fixing is growing apace. So, not so much swanning on days like that. Hey ho.

HIPPIES

If you travel to this part of Spain, then Hippie-watching is a thing. They all live in Orgiva, in a settlement in the Sierra Nevada mountains that was set up some twenty-odd years ago. They live in tents, and yurts, and huts, and vans, and anything really. Until recently, the kids were all home-educated, but now they have to attend the local school. But some things die hard, and whilst we were there a chap in a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt called all the little ones out for ‘parachute games’. Oh yes.

It felt a bit odd going there just to ‘look’. Like that scene in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where they all go out to the reservation to watch the ‘savages’. But no-one seemed available to talk to us, so we couldn’t pretend we were genuinely interested in adopting their life-style. We headed further into the mountains, instead.

THE ALPAJURRAS

Climbing higher and higher, we passed though two pretty little white-washed villages (Pampaneira and Bubion) and up to the third (Capileira). We stopped here, intending to walk around, then get a coffee and some lunch. Well, the walk around was quite short as it was bloomin’ steep and Steve’s angina was playing up. That is my story and I’m sticking to it.

We found a great little cafe with views over the entire valley. The sun was beating down, but the snow on the mountain tops was close and clear. We drank wine and ate weird mushroom tapas. I closed my eyes and found my bliss. A single lady on the next table struck up a conversation. She turned out to be from New York, but was currently working as a photography teacher in Qatar. She’d come to Capileira for a Flamenco course and a few day’s break. She was nice. We had a lovely chat. Then she pootled off to the loo and never came back. After a while, Steve went to pay the bill.

Now, a nice thing I’ve noticed about the Spanish, is that they won’t halt a good conversation just because a queue is forming that reaches halfway to India. And when I’d waited a reasonable amount of time, I went looking for him. He was in the bar, and so was the New Yorker and another couple (she from Britain and he from Australia), all chatting away to the cafe owner. The couple had come for the same Flamenco course – which is pretty famous, apparently – and they’d all got talking.

But when I arrived, the bar owner – who’d clearly been something of a sex-goddess in her day – was saying to the couple, ‘Oh yes, I know him – he was once my lover’.

Wait, what?

British lady – ‘Did you know his last girlfriend? Only she’s my best friend.’

Cafe-Goddess – ‘Oh yes, I know her too. But he and I – it could not work – always flying from here to Bali and back again.’

Seriously?

And now the Australian joins in. He’s from Fremantle. My niece lives in Fremantle. He thinks he’s heard of her. (She’s fighting some fairly pivotal ecological issues and is regularly arrested whilst protesting up trees).

Steve’s mum comes from Geraldton and his sister lived there for a while. British lady thinks she knows her too. ‘Roxy, right?’ ‘Er, yes.’At this point I’m wondering if there’s anybody that British lady doesn’t know.

Cafe-Goddess is going into details about the affair to New Yorker. We are still waiting to pay the bill. Isn’t this great?

MEETING MORE PEOPLE

It has come to our attention that there are certain rituals attached to the life of a motorhome dweller. Our current location has the waste dump point right in the middle of the tarmac. Each morning, a steady stream of chaps bring grey plastic containers to empty into it. It’s like watching wildebeest gathering at a watering hole. Same look of concentration. Same measured gait.

Then, before the mass sitting-on-chairs begins, there is cleaning to do. I saw a lady sweeping her roof! I honestly had no idea that this might be expected of me.

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There was a nice Dutch couple in the van next to us, and he busily cleaned his van until it sparkled. I joked that he was putting me to shame and he said that, no, it was man’s work. Which is good. So I told Steve. Two days later, Steve got his new (and unused) hose-broom out and started clearing all the sand off Georgie’s windscreen. Dutch guy and all his sitting-in-chairs mates broke into spontaneous applause. Ha.

We met a nice couple called Peter and Joy in one of the local cafes. She’d recently had an accident and sliced her wrist, so they were full of praise for the local hospital where they’d basically saved her life. The best thing about it, though, was that the Chapel of Rest had a Tapas Bar in it, so you could go and have a pint and some prawns whilst paying your respects!

Then we meet the wonderful Peter and Beryl. They’ve been full-timing for years and currently occupy an American RV that is even bigger than ours and has two slide-outs. They are also a mine of invaluable information. And they have a parrot. Need I say more.

Well, yes. Peter is a damn fine cook, counts topping up your drinks as an Olympic speed sport, and is an avuncular host. Beryl is an absolute charmer, and I can see why Peter fell for her – legs up to my chin, kind and thoughtful, with a very slight – and sweet – speech impediment. She’s been teaching the parrot to count but has been unable to get him to say the number 3. ‘He goes 1,2…. 4, 5,’ she says, ‘he can’t seem to say the number free.’ Aw, bless, neither can you Beryl, and it is enchanting, there’s no other word.

ENOUGH OF THAT, BECAUSE, NOW….. THE HEAD-BOARD (dun, dun, duuuuuh !!!!!)

Well.

We have something called an east-west bed, which means it goes sideways across the van instead of head on. This allows for much more room to get around the bed and a far, far superior wardrobe space.

But…..

…..the head of our bed is beneath a window, which doubles as our escape hatch should the van roll. So we sit up in bed, watching Project Runway (don’t judge us), and lean on half a side pelmet, some crumpled blind, and a large metal handle each. Not comfortable and, in colder weather, bloody draughty.

What to do? Remove the pelmets and blinds and insert a head-board, of course. It will fit the space, block out the noise, light, and draughts and still be easily removable in an emergency. So I tell Steve to keep an eye out for some foam. He has other jobs to do – fixing leaks and creating a kitchen cubby-hole (because I can’t be doing with wasted space) – and he discovers some thick, insulating foam in a hardware store. I promptly dismantle all the existing window coverings.

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We buy two 1×2 metre sheets, an inch thick, figuring that one on its own won’t be stiff enough to stay upright, but that if we put two together….you see my thinking here? Then I pin some temporary fabric around them (OK, a sheet), prop them up behind the pillows and we go to bed.

Most of the night, the foam falls on my head.

The next day Pete says, ‘What you need is a sheet of hardboard that you could stick some foam-backed leatherette on. Put a shelf there,’ he says, pointing at the pillow end of my bed, ‘and sit it on top.’

So I give it a good think, and although I can’t quite bring myself to embrace the leatherette, I reckon he’s got some good ideas that I can work around. We beggar off back to the hardware store and buy a sheet of hardboard and some other bits and bobs.

The board is cut to fit the space. It is not, however, cut to fit inside a Smart car.

We take the roof down, bend the passenger seat forward and cram it in. I ride all the way home, bent double, with a frozen hand sticking out the top of the van holding on to the board because of the hurricane force winds that have suddenly shot up again.

And then comes the bit where I am really glad that we bought a new kitchen knife, and that I packed both my glue and staple guns, and a sewing machine.

Long story short, it only took me three days, mostly because the window turned out to be slightly crooked. And – as I was cutting out a piece to fit exactly inside it, and another to fit outside it (stopping all the draughts and light) – this was a bit of a mission. I glued these onto the board, then glued the other piece of foam onto the other side to act as a soft surface to lean on.

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Put up the shelf for it to rest on. Covered it in fabric. Made pull-it-to-escape-handles. Loads of velcro on the back and on the wall. And it works a treat. Beryl reckons it looks like it’s always been there.

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HOMEWARD BOUND

And, having done all that, it is now time for us to start wending our way back to the UK in order to M.O.T. both the vehicles. So we are trogging on towards Barcelona, intending to cut across the Pyrenees at the business end, whip up through France to Dieppe, and then trolley back over the channel for the end of March. See you then, peeps. Much love.

 

 

 

The land of plastic sheeting

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I AM A SNOB

You know how there are good and bad ways of being a snob? The good way being about discernment and having taste, and the bad being about having neither? And being intentionally ironic by doing or liking crap things, rather than not knowing any better? Well, as soon as we left Sevilla and headed towards Malaga, I found out which one I was.

Oh dear. Oh double dear with knobs on.

Not only am I a raging snob, but I am both scathing and dismissive from a standpoint of NO KNOWLEDGE WHATSOEVER. Yikes!

As soon as I started seeing signs for Malaga, all my preconceptions, biased views and ridiculous notions hurtled to the surface like vomit from a drunk. And it was a shock. How did I get this way – when I’ve never even been there?

Well, my parents lived in a world of white-collar workers (respectable) and blue-collar workers (not so much, although God know’s why – I’ve done those type of jobs and they are HARD).

And, as with all things, certain life-styles, aspirations and stereotypes attached to these groups. My mum was a teacher (ergo, respectable), but my dad was deffo blue-collar as an electrical engineer. I can’t begin to tell you how that irked my mum, was the cause of many major rows, and made her stress to her children how they were supposed to aim higher. And in her view, only the lower classes (to which we clearly belonged, however much she denied it) went to Butlins, watched Coronation Street, or dropped their H’s.

That was in the sixties – my formative years (bloody Nora, I’m knocking on). Then came the seventies and the rise of the package holiday. WELL! You can just imagine what my mum thought of those. In her mind it was Butlins done large, crossed with kicking-out time on a Saturday night from the local boozer.

I, personally, couldn’t see anything wrong and was insane with jealousy when my mates on the school bus talked about going to ‘My-orca’.(I remember thinking, was that the same place as Mer-jorka? I honestly didn’t know: I’d never been further than Cardiff).

Then came the eighties, and I’d left school and buggered off to London. My circle of friends seemed to include a lot of people who went to private schools. It was the era of the yuppie, and was all about timeshares, not cheap package holidays, and exotic locations in parts of the world that I’d literally never heard of before. People were ‘travellers’, not ‘holiday-makers’, and I wanted sooooo much to be a traveller.

But by then my hormones, the pill, and pregnancy tests had all failed me, and I was a single mum on Income Support. Not going anywhere, then. (But at least mum stopped nagging me to go and get a proper job and washed her hands of me instead. So, you know, silver linings.)

And all of this shaped my thoughts about Malaga, Marbella, Benidorm…..you get the idea.

And now Malaga is on the horizon and I am surprised at how much I think I know – about somewhere I’ve never been.

And about how I feel – which has tinges of distaste! What’s that all about?

I push it all aside, and decide to open my mind to exactly what it is like, even though we are only passing by. But it is hard, which is another shock. I had no idea that my prejudices were so ingrained. I give myself a bit of a talking to.

MALAGA AND ITS SURROUNDINGS

There are certainly a lot of high-rises near the coast, but no more than in any other city, I suppose. And the sea looks so blue and cloud-dusted that I’d probably want to build something tall, to take in the view, too. As my geography is so poor, I am also charmed by the unexpectedness of the mountains that frame the eastern horizon, topped with snow in the sparkling sunlight.

The hills near the road are dotted with trees in patterns as regular as Craig David’s hair, little nubs of green on the rich, stony earth. There are small sections of field tucked between roads and houses that are planted with ….. things. I can’t tell what they are, because each is shrouded in a white covering, tied at the bottom. They resemble, most accurately, fields of mummified Moomins.

Steve has told me that this part of the world is called the ‘fruit-bowl of the Europe’ and, as we drive further along the coast, we begin to understand why. Great swathes of the earth are terraced and enclosed, not in greenhouses or poly-tunnels, but in structures covered in plastic sheeting. Hundreds of them, for miles and miles. The further east we travel, the more concentrated they become, until they stretch far out from the mountains to the coast, reflecting the sun so that you can’t tell where they end and the ocean begins.

They provide a continuous environment, and protection from insects, enabling the growth of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, courgettes and many types of fruit. But they also create a surreal and distinctive landscape, a little dreary by day, almost moon pod-like at dusk, and creepy by night.

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We drive through until we reach a gap near Velez-Malaga. There, we find a site that stores caravans and motorhomes for those who come here every year. It’s not allowed to list itself as a campsite anymore, but you can stay there overnight, empty your tanks, get fresh water, use the electricity. We stay a few ‘overnights’ and find Francesca’s cafe on the other side of the road. She’s young and tattooed and does cocktails. Bliss.

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And this is only a few miles from Malaga, so shame on me.

As we move further east there will be Granada and the Sierra Nevada to explore. Steve points out Mini Hollywood on the map, which is where the ‘spaghetti westerns’ were filmed (someone with a far worse knowledge of the world than me coined that term!). This is actual land that people like Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner have squinted at and spat on. I am a happy bunny.

TIPS FOR CAMPING IN THE RAIN

We’ve had a bit of a storm: horizontal rain and gale force winds, that sort of thing. And although Georgie has no leaks, so far, she found this weather rather a lot to handle. We pulled in the slide-out, so that the awning above it wouldn’t get torn, but she still rocked from side to side. We turned on the telly and the heating, and hunkered down.

When we went to bed, we found a huge wet patch in the middle of the duvet. The rain had been blown into the air-conditioning unit on the roof and had seeped down onto the bed. Steve did a natty fix-it by sticking our fold-up bucket (thanks, Adam and Felicity) to the ceiling with drawing pins.

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And I’d also come up with a BRILLIANT idea a few days earlier. Sometimes our electric cable doesn’t quite reach to the electric point, so we have to use an extension. Common enough, and you often see junctions wrapped in plastic bags, sitting off the ground on bricks or hanging from trees.

I came up with this solution – buy a big tupperware from a Chinese shop, cut two small notches in it for the cables to feed in and out, pop the junctions inside and slam on the lid. Instantly waterproof, clearly visible, doesn’t matter if there’s a bit of a puddle, can’t trip or drive over it easily. Eh voila.

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The resulting smugness I feel is helping me get over my snobbery. So, happy dance.

Fond farewells, Feliz Navidad and f***ing flu.

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ENTERTAINING MR BROADBENT (& co)

It was time to leave lovely Moncarapache and the fabulous Intrepids, so we decided to throw a little farewell party. To make it cosy, Steve and I tried to put up the safari room that fits onto the side of Georgie. We’ve done this once before with the help of Lawrence (Steve’s daughter Rosie’s partner – stay with me here) and it seemed pretty self-explanatory, but this time it  appeared to have morphed into a puzzle of double-mensa proportions. So I got Mr Jim Broadbent to help and went and cut up bread and cheese, and filled bowls with Pala-pala (a brand of micro-chipstick that we are all addicted to).

Despite days of running to and from electrical shops we’d been unable to find the right combination of TV, speaker, connecting cable, and microphone neccessary to get my karaoke working. In the end, Steve signed us up for 2 days of online karaoke. It had over 20,000 songs. Anything you could think of. No mic, but brilliant all the same.

Kick off was at six, and by six thirty we had crammed nineteen people into Georgie and the party was in full swing. At seven thirty Steve got the karaoke going. Now it must be said that when I’d mentioned the idea previously, several of the Intrepids had been somewhat lukewarm about the idea, but as the first song up was the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York, everyone sang their hearts out.

We did all the usual Christmas songs with the men trying to outdo each other on the Noddy Holder bit, then moved on to golden oldies and classics. Steve was wistful about having seen Dusty Springfield in concert when he was young. The warm-up band had been some chaps calling themselves The Beatles. And we all got well-oiled and sang until Georgie vibrated.

By about ten, some of the people had wandered home, and we were left with the party die-hards; Terry and June, John and Brenda, Mr and Mrs Jim Broadbent, and two couples that we’d never met before. That’s how parties go though, isn’t it?

Steve had somehow got drunk again, and was starting to be very bossy with the karaoke as it was playing from his phone. He put on obscure music that no-one but me had ever heard of, but then forgot to sing along. He also got very excitable as he was sitting next to Mr Jim Broadbent, who is always upbeat and who wanted to walk 500 miles, then do the entire Proclaimer’s back catalogue.

At one point Steve tried to get his attention, but due to the effects of alcohol on his not-quite-recovered-from-the-stroke brain he couldn’t remember either of his names and ended up yelling, ‘Darling! Darling!‘ at him, without noticing there was anything untoward about this. Honestly: pissed myself.

For me, this was the signal to wrest the phone from his hands and get the karaoke back under some kind of control. So I put on ‘Let it go‘ from Frozen for him to sing and you never saw a happier man. Apart from Jim, who also looked a little teary. ‘Great song, this,‘ they both agreed, as they mumbled the bit about fractals.

Sadly, the next day Brenda had gone down with some horrible bug, and by the time we left early the following morning, John, Mr Jim Broadbent and Steve were all complaining of feeling shit.

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Some of the fabulous Intrepids, on one of their boot-camp style yomps.

AND SO TO SPAIN

We’d been invited to spend Christmas with Elena’s parents (Julio and Emilia) in Don Benito, Spain. Elena is our son Sam’s girlfriend and they were both going to fly over and spend Christmas there as well. We were all very excited, (Sam especially so as he’d heard that Don Benito translated as ‘Mr Pretty Man’, which we both thought was terribly cool until we found out it didn’t).

We’d planned an easy journey so that we wouldn’t be too tired: across to Seville, then up the motorway towards Merida, stopping for the night at a truck stop on the way, and doing the last leg the following day.

Near Monasterio we stopped for petrol and found the motherload of truck stops: Leo’s 24hour service station, complete with mini-mart, gift shop, self-service cafe, restaurant, bar, showers, hotel, squash courts, enough parking for 100 trucks, and – get this – its own butchers and deli.

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We had most of the car park to ourselves, with a fabulous view of the mountains. Two eagles flew over the van as we drove in. Just spectacular.

It had everything and none of it was the usual down-market tat you get in Britain, though I searched and searched for something crap to photograph. The best I could find among the beautiful, soft, leather handbags and miles of artisan pickles, cheeses and marmalades was a shelf of pocket knives with artfully carved wooden handles – in the shape of slightly flaccid penises.

Now, I am generally a glass half full person and so this caused me to wonder why I judged them to be on the way down, so to speak, rather than on the way up? (Notice that I did not say ‘almost erect’). I once had a friend who was interviewed by a policewoman after seeing a flasher. ‘Was it erect or flaccid’, the PC wanted to know? My mate was twelve and had no idea what she was talking about, so the PC tried again. ‘Was it dingling or dangling’, she asked? Not helpful. No. But it came to mind as I looked at those penknives. Did they have a hint of dangle or a sorry attempt at a dingle?

Steve was now feeling terrible from the bug and I was succumbing to it as well. Bugger. Searched out all the drugs we had bought with us and cursed myself for not having thought of a gallon of Nightnurse and some industrial strength Sudafed when packing. We went to Monasterio and tried to persuade two different chemists to sell us as much vitamin C as possible and any other drug we could get. They’d never heard of time-release vit C, and if they had, they weren’t going to sell it to us. So we coped with what they gave us and went back to Leo’s for a three-course meal, with bread, and wine or coffee for €8.50.

FELIZ NAVIDAD (COUGH, SPLUTTER, SNIVEL, ACHOO)

Emilia and Julio have a town house in Don Benito for the winter, and a country house, just outside, for the summer. It was arranged that Sam and Elena, along with her sister Julia and boyfriend David, would stay with us at the country house. It had a huge driveway that Elena was certain we could get Georgie onto, and if it didn’t make it around the tight corner, then we could drive her straight onto next door’s driveway instead.

Well, we didn’t make it around the corner, so onto the neighbour, Manolo’s, driveway we went. We shoved everything we thought we might need into the house, took more drugs, and followed Julio around as he showed us where everything was. He didn’t speak English and we are total beginners at Spanish, but it amazing how much you can figure out by people pointing at things.

He built up an enormous fire, which had the advantage of being on an inside wall, on the other side of which was our bed-head. We were assured that the heat would transfer well into the room. Great. Because this was the summer house, which means it was designed specifically to stay cold. Great high ceilings, tiled floors, lots of drapes and shutters, no central heating. Dear old Julio came three or four times a day while we stayed there and built up that fire every time. Probably used an entire tree. Sorry, environment, but I was cold and had the flu, so it had to be done.

The family were wonderful, warm, loud, and gushing. We met the two grandmas, 93 year old Emilia, and 91 year old Visi (pronounced busy). Emilia wanted to know why my hair was grey when hers was still dark brown. Honestly, so did I. There were aunts and cousins and friends and Elena’s elder brother, Juan, with his wife and new baby. I had to tell them all that I had a bug and would only shake their hands, and I wouldn’t go near the baby. Steve and I were terrified that after our visit we’d find out we’d killed off both the grandmas and the baby would be in intensive care. So we kept our distance. And then we cried off and went back to the country, and fell into bed.

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Bad photo of lovely grandma Emilia

The next day was Christmas Eve and was the traditional day for celebrating: the big meal would be in the evening and the gift giving would occur after that. In general, only a small gift is given at this time, the main presents arriving with the advent of The Three Magic Kings at Epiphany. Or the Three Wise Men, as we know them. I asked Elena why they are called ‘magic’ and she thought for a long while and then said, ‘because they are magicians‘. So there you have it.

It makes sense when you consider that Santa Claus grew out of a Scandinavian tradition, and so would be of much less importance here. The Kings bring the gifts to baby Jesus, so that’s when the children get their gifts as well – on the 6th January. But because Elena and other members of her family could only get time off at Christmas, they decided to celebrate a little early.

Thanks to the flu and all the medication we took, the next few days are a bit of a blur. Steve and I had to take turns doing the meals while the other one crashed in bed. I ate spider crab legs, he ate a sparrow. Older Emilia became my very best friend despite not understanding a word each other said. We used Google Translate A LOT.

Elena’s mum kindly sent each of us home with jars of homemade soup and bags of food, which we were too ill to make use of. The next door neighbour cut us veg from his patch – some broccoli, a romanescu and the biggest cauliflower I have ever seen. I genuinely didn’t know they made them that big. Since Julio nearly severed his foot falling off the patio roof a year ago, he has been unable to grow his own veg. So he keeps chickens in what was his veg patch and Manolo grows the produce. Then they share it. Here is a picture of the cauliflower, with an orange, for purposes of scale.

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We went out to bars and met all their lovely friends. Julio showed us pictures of his house in Almancil, on the coast, and practically ordered us to stay there as long as we wanted. They showered us with every bit of hospitality it is possible to receive.

And then I disappointed my son.

Let me explain.

When I was a kid I had a phobia about ‘slimy’ foods: you know, things that have no bite to them, like custard. Couldn’t bear them, made me gag. Then one day my parents gave me a plate of tinned spaghetti, the mere sight of which was appalling to me. And my helpful elder brother, Mac, said, ‘that’s worms, that is‘. Fast forward fifteen years and I am finally able to eat both custard and pasta, but only in small quantities. Fast forward another fifteen and I am wolfing them down with gusto. Yay, sorted.

But……when you’ve got the flu……..you just want comfort food, and familiar things, and nothing that tastes a bit ‘funny‘. Don’t you?

So when a plate of angulas were put down in front of me, I admit, I freaked out a bit. Because they are baby eels. Elvers.  And, of course, they are small – about the width of a piece of tinned spaghetti – and grey. Oh yes. With no hint of a tomato sauce to disguise them. It was all my childhood food nightmares come back to haunt me. In my drugged up and bacteria-logged state I imagined I would have to sit there until I ate a whole plateful, just like when I was a kid (mums did that then – thought it was good for you).

So I did eat one. And it was actually nice, and nothing liked it looked. And my son commented that he thought I was more adventurous than that. And I wanted to be the mum he thought I was, and scoff them down with sophisticated assurance, but they were GREY! And then Julia, Elena’s sister said that she didn’t like them either, and I thought, ‘Oh thank God‘.

MOVING ON

On our last day, Manolo and Julio came and cooked lunch for us at the country house. Both Emilias came, and the long table was laid for us and all the neighbours. Julio said that he and Manolo have been best friends since they met on the first day of school, aged five, over sixty years ago. Sweet.

They were going to cook a traditional spanish peasant breakfast dish for us, and to do this, they needed to utilise the cauldron. The one that Julio had been using to take out the fire ashes all week. I love this.

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They worked really well together, as you would expect. Using knives that Crocodile Dundee would quail at, they hacked up bacon into lardons the size of your average chocolate brownie. They browned them off in loads of olive oil, then scooped them out to make way for three whole heads of garlic, split into cloves. Then they chucked in a washing-up bowl of red pepper strips, and softened and charred them. Finally, the oil was used to flavour and fry an entire cauldron full of breadcrumbs. This meant stirring and stirring, so that each crumb had some oil, and had crisped up a little – about 40 minutes of hard graft, I reckon. This was man food.

They’d also broken up different types of chorizo meat and mushed them in pans with wine and other flavourings. The peppers, garlic and lardons were stirred back in at the end, and bowlfuls of the mixture were topped with the fried chorizo. It was bloody lovely.

But then we had to leave. And the driveway that had been so easy to pull onto, was suddenly quite difficult to get out of. The gates opened inwards, so we had been at an advantage coming in. Trying to navigate our way out of a space that was only just big enough, with the gates catching and scraping along Georgie’s sides, was brutal. I’d held the right gate on the way in, but Steve’s angle must have been slightly different then because Manolo was getting crushed as he tried to do it.

But these were the men who carried knives and ate man food. They ate those bloody eels, for God’s sake – this was not going to beat them. In the end, one of Manolo’s sons had to climb onto the hedge, I kid you not, and lasso the gate for Julio and Manolo and Emilia to haul open with a rope. Don’t believe me? Here are the pics.

And then we were away. And where did we go? Back to Leo’s of course.

Flood, mud, mushrooms and poo (Cuthbert, Dibble, Grub)

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SANITARY INSANITY

Under the heading ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ sit most of the things we have done since I last blogged.

To break you in gently, here is a picture of our local Police Station. Our PINK Police Station. Brilliant, right?

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But back to real life.

In our brave new world, there is the continuing issue of grey, and black, waste (or stuff from the sink, and stuff from the loo, respectively) and the disposal thereof. The corner plot we’d been given had electricity – and its own water supply, which was a big bonus – but wasn’t very close to the sewer point. In order to reach it, Steve had to drive Georgie through the trees on Frank’s orchardy bit in the middle of the campsite. I find this unbearable. Although he drives expertly through a very small gap, the screeching of the trees as they scrape along both sides of the van drives me nuts. I am constantly on the lookout for branches to snag on the wing mirrors, or awning pole, and be wrenched off. There are mere centimetres on each side. I usually go and have a shower and avoid the whole thing.

So one day I foolishly muttered, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a little extra hose and then we could reach the sewer without packing everything down, lifting the levellers, bringing in the slide out, etc., etc.’ And he heard me, and bought a great long length of hose.

Now, the original hose is nine centimetres in circumference, and folds flat so that everything gets squeezed out as you roll it back up. It is also opaque.

The new hose is barely six centimetres, solid, and transparent.  The sewer point is also slightly uphill.

There are clues here as to what went wrong.

Can I just say that Steve connected all the hoses beautifully: perfect joins, no leakage. The new multi-hose snaked its way over the grass and through the trees with aplomb. Then Steve turned on the macerator and we watched the original hose inflate as the effluent made it’s way up to the new piece. After which it filled the hose with horrible, visible, lumpy ………… you get the drift, and then it choked, and stopped working.

And we were left with MILES of hose filled with last weeks lunch.

To be emptied by hand. Oh yes.

I stood in the orchard holding the new hose over the sewer point, while Steve rolled up the first one from the van end, forcing the stuff up to my end. And I had to hold it high in order to make the air pockets (God, I hope they were air pockets) move the right way along the hose, swooshing the – shall we say – liquid? down towards the end. And I watched things I neither wanted, nor expected, to see again swim past me, upstream, like little chocolate salmon. It took bloody ages, as the direction of flow changed according to the size of the ‘air pockets’.

Afterwards, I stayed in the shower for a very, very long time.

While I was scrubbing the top ten layers of skin from my body, Steve screeched past the tress and emptied the van properly. And, for good measure, threaded the outside tap hose through the bathroom window, and flushed the whole system through with fresh water.

Which would have been fine.

It would have – but the hose pulled free and flooded our bathroom. Not a big deal, you think. And Steve did say he’d mostly cleaned it up.

Mostly. Such an innocuous word.

When Georgie was built, the technique was to lay the carpet first, then erect all the walls and cupboards on top. That carpet had been there since 1998. In the bathroom! Yuk. So one of the first things I’d done was to rip it up and replace it with lino.

Because of the structures on top, it was no mean feat pulling it out. I’d got it off the floor (and the accompanying floppy foam underlay), but been unable to lift it from inside the under sink cupboard, or up the side of the bits that cover all the piping, etc. And naturally, these were the bits that’d got soaked.

A week later I was cleaning my teeth, and I noticed something yellow protruding from under the sink cupboard. A swollen bit of underlay, I thought, and went to yank it out. Big shock – it was cold, wet and rubbery. And living.

‘There’s a monster in the bedroom,’ I said, ‘you made it, so you deal with it.’

And it was basically a huge fungus that had grown under the carpet. I think it ate the underlay. The next day Steve ripped out all the carpet that he could reach, and left a fan heater blowing into the cupboard in an effort to dry it out. It has been a week and the fan heater is still being used. The floor is still damp. And we do not know if there is a bath-sized mushroom underneath that, waiting to poke its head out soon. I’ll let you know.

THE GAS MAN COMETH NOT.

After we’d been here several weeks, it started to get a bit chilly of an evening. The Intrepids had sensibly pointed out that we were already paying for electricity so why use our gas for heating? Go and buy a small fan heater, they’d said. So we did. We bought two – which was just as well, as one has been constantly employed in the bathroom. But before then we had been using the gas. The indicator said it was nearly all gone and if you banged on the tank it sounded hollow, which is the true test, obvs.

However, since our last manoeuvre with the van, Brenda and John had turned up in a largish camper van, and been parked on the corner. This made it impossible for us to get out the way we’d come in. However, Frank had a fence panel that he  routinely removed to let larger vehicles in and out.

But it was at the bottom of the orchardy bit, over grass with some gravel chucked on top, and it had been raining to the point that Noah would have thrown up his hands and quit. Ergo, we waited for a dryish day to go out and fill up with gas.

And we waited.

And waited.

Steve searched for the right adaptor to change our gas feed over to cylinder rather than tank, but drew a blank as our RV is American and the screws go the wrong way, apparently. We discussed getting a small BBQ and using that to cook with, but the problem was that our hot water and the fridge/freezer both ran on gas, and now the indicator said that it was non-existent. And the weather forecast said that the next few days were going to be even wetter.

Whether we liked it or not, we had to go out and get gas.

The day was dry but overcast. Good enough. We got out without any problem.

Then we failed to find any gas. Everywhere we went was closed (despite the signs that said ‘open’), or the wrong gas, or unreachable in a 34ft vehicle.

But we got some in the end, and headed home to find it’d rained, a little, while we’d been away. Halfway through the open fence panel, Steve stopped to check in with Frank.

In the words of Pretty Woman, Julia Roberts, ‘Big mistake: huge‘. Because the back wheel sunk several inches and Georgie flatly refused to move.

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It was late, getting dark (which happens fairly instantly here – the sun hits the horizon like it’s trying to do it some damage), and Frank, Steve and all the male Intrepids could not get it to budge. So this is where we spent the night – half in and half out of the campsite, and on a terrible list to starboard, which required cushioning the van against the metal gatepost.

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The next day, a local tractor dragged us back out. In the pouring rain, of course.

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Frank gave us a new location – right above the sewer point! So now it is easy to empty the waste tanks, but we have no water like we did in the corner plot. Sadly, when ‘plumbing’ us back in, Steve lost his wedding ring. He’s lost nearly 3 stone in weight, and it just slipped off. Very sad.

GEORGIE GETS A MAKEOVER

I love my home, I really do. But there is rather a lot of wood, and although my taste can encompass retro, vintage, shabby chic, steampunk, modernist, Swedish, opulent, eclectic, and even Romany, it does not extend to country kitchen.

I already owned a lot of stuff that was blue and white, so I’ve started decorating with that as my starting point. Can’t do much about the carpet, for the reasons mentioned above, but everything else is getting distressed to within an inch of its life.

So far, I have done the slide-out. We took the big, wavy mirrors out because of the weight, and the terrible rattling noise as we drove along, and there were forty crappy brass handles – too expensive to replace – so I’ve painted them instead. Dove grey paint on most walls and cupboards, so they blend together. Dark bluey-grey on the old mirror wall. Blue/cream striped ticking on the pelmets.

See before…..

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…… and after.

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Plus, needed a spice rack that fitted into my tiny cupboards and, despite searching every Chinese shop in the Algarve, I’ve had to make my own out of a spare piece of ticking and some plastic bags. I am on a roll.

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THE INTREPIDS AND THE DRUNK

These guys are amazing.

We have a couple of new faces who say their names are Ian and Sue, but you can’t fool me: they are Mr and Mrs Jim Broadbent – that voice, face and accent are unmistakable.

They took us for another of their long walks last week, and challenged us to tackle the hill to the lookout point. All the way up, Jim Broadbent stayed next to Steve, because he happened to overhear me saying that Steve’s angina could play up and I wanted to keep a close eye on him.

When they heard that Steve had lost his ring, they were all out the next morning with rakes and brushes, searching through the grass and gravel, trying to find it for him. So sweet. They even spotted a metal detector at a local car boot, and they would have bought it too, if it had been strong enough to respond to gold.

Terry has made us all marmalade from the oranges on Frank’s trees. It is fabulous and I have scoffed half a jar already.

Brenda and John had a ‘happy hour’ that started a three in the afternoon, and was still going strong at nine. I missed most of it by being in bed with bad CFS. But Steve got hammered, which is a thing that I have only seen three times in as many decades. I got him home, gave him some food and coffee, but it was too late – he felt ill and needed some fresh air. Steve never needs fresh air; he prefers the ready-warmed variety. So we wandered down into the orange grove, where he started farting and singing ‘Let it go, let it go‘.

‘I love that song,’ he said.

He also expressed a deep and pure love for the breadboard, so I think his heart is fickle when smashed. It took him several attempts to get back up the (slight) slope to the van, and he required assistance, even then.

The next day, Brenda said, ‘It were that Terry – he wouldn’t let him go until he’d finished that last bottle – or were it two? Can’t remember.’

When we say we are leaving next week, they try to persuade us to stay. John rubbed his eyes in mock crying. Brenda is hoping we will leave the van here and go to Spain by car, so we have to come back.

We will have a ‘do’ next Tuesday, to say goodbye to them all. We have done a test run on the van with eight people, and it was only half full, so I reckon we can get twelve of them in, no bother. I just hope Steve can get the Karaoke machine talking to our telly in the same language by then: John has a party piece, apparently.

Pilgrims and wanderers

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THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO

I’d heard something of The Camino before we came, but it was very vague: I remember seeing a video of people walking around the side of a crumbling mountain with a wire to hold onto, and not much else. I knew it was some kind of old road that was now seen as a challenge to walkers and climbers, but that’s as far as my knowledge extended. Well, shame on me.

The Camino is one of oldest pilgrimages in the world and in the middle ages was in the top three – the other two routes leading to Rome and Jerusalem. Millions of travellers have set out on this road, over hundreds of years, and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I encountered it as we drifted down out of the Pyrenees into Spain, a few weeks ago. The route we were on would lead all the way across country, to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where lie the bones of St James The Greater (St. Iago in Spanish). He was the son of Zebedee ( and you could stop me right there and that would be good enough for me), one of the original twelve apostles, and the very first person martyred for his faith. Or so they say. Other theories include the fact that he and his brother were known as the ‘Sons of Thunder’ on account of their fiery tempers, so who knows what really kicked off. But he’s the patron saint of Spain, so fair enough.

After his beheading, his remains were shipped from the Holy Land to the shores of Spain, where a storm capsized the boat. You could say he wasn’t having much luck up to this point, but then it all goes a bit Disney. One story says that his body washed up on the shore, intact, and covered in scallop shells. Now I’d find that grizzly, but in the world of saints this counts as a miracle, so who am I to judge. The scallop shell became the symbol of The Camino, and endures to this day.

PILGRIMS

I’m not a big fan of religions that operate from a position of fear of what will happen to you after you’re dead. I find the carrot is more effective than the stick, and anyway, I’m not good at taking other peoples’ word for things. Especially when they are men who lived thousands of years ago. If that floats your boat and gives you purpose and comfort, then fine, but it just doesn’t work for me.

So the whole idea of doing penance in this life to atone for sins you may have done or are yet to do – that there is a balance scale somewhere that you can adjust – is one that makes little sense to me.

But the idea of a spiritual journey, a long, arduous, and contemplative journey, alone with your thoughts and fears and yearnings – I find that rather admirable and brave.

ROUTES

The pilgrims on The Camino traditionally started at their own front doors and made their way to the Cathedral (like going to Mecca or, sadly, these days, Graceland.) Sometimes this took years: imagine that. They followed the Milky Way which is associated with The Camino, the legend being that the stars were created from the dust of a thousand travellers as they journeyed to pay homage to their Saint.

These days the minimum requirement is to walk 100km or cycle for 200km. Or you can go by donkey but that’s harder to arrange accommodation for.

The route is marked by the symbol of scallop shell in various forms, and there are hostels for the travellers in every small town or village along the way. Our first pit-stop in Spain was in the car park of one and, as it’s good manners to eat where you stop, we had dinner in the little cafe there.

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The other diners were a mixture of locals and pilgrims: the latter set apart by their walking gear, of course, but also by the atmosphere they generated. The couple next to us were an elderly lady with a much needed stick and a younger woman who clutched her side and hobbled slowly to the counter to pay. I was shocked: we were nearly 500km away from Santiago. But the next morning they were already well on their way as we passed them.

What drives people to do this, year after year, over 200,000 at a time? Were they seeking some miracle of healing for their infirmities, or reassurance that with death approaching they had put their afterlife affairs in order? None of the dogged, persistent walkers we saw that morning – and there were a surprising number – were young, or fit, or seeming to be there just for the physical challenge of it.

Rather humbling, if mystifying. When I’d walked the twenty feet of Camino from van to cafe, I’d tried to do it with respect, but somehow I didn’t think it counted.

Or did it?

THE GIFT OF AN ANSWERED PRAYER

Spain was hot and flat and dry. The long roads stretched as endlessly as the fields were boundless. Steve and I had agreed that we’d stop near Salamanca, but other than that we were going straight on to Portugal: we’d return to Spain later in the year.

We’d also agreed to pause at the next truck stop or petrol station so that I could have a wee and a tea. But we passed one, after another, after another, and he didn’t stop and I was getting headachy and desperate.

The nice thing about driving Nibbles behind Georgie is that I get to vent in the happy knowledge that it affects no-one. And I can shout or sing or curse as much as I like, and still arrive at my destination, serene. So I had a damn good shout at Steve and it went something like this:-

‘Where the fuck are you going? Really? We’ve just passed another one, you twonk. So what was wrong with that one then? I NEED to STOP! Or I can piss my seat, I don’t care. Please God, just stop soon.’

You get the gist.

I was beginning to think that he’d drive all the way to fucking Brazil without stopping, when I saw it —

— the sign of the scallop shell, high above a sea of green, an oasis, calling me.

And whoever’s up there must have heard because Steve indicated and pulled off the road.

Into a BP Shell service station, with a loo and a cafe and a shop that sold Jaffa cakes called Pims (that’s a gift that keeps on giving).

So thank you, St. Jim. You’re my kind of guy.

A LONG LINE OF WANDERERS

My family history covers continents: we have always put our faith in the unknown, often with an ocean linking our present to our future.

My father is a case in point: his family were originally from Ireland but his antecedents also included Hapsburgs, and Voortrekkers. He was born and bred in Rhodesia and used to tell me tales of going gold prospecting in the bush with his elder brothers.

He met my mother while she was a nurse in Zambia. She’d already lived in Mauritius, and was now near her sister, Ruth, who was a missionary working in a leprosy hospital in the bush. When mum was homesick, he did as his forebears had, and crossed a continent for the woman he loved.

My family do this: we up sticks and spread out, searching for other sunsets on different soil. A new place offers new possibilities. Why read the same book over and over? Why not find a new story? I, myself, have moved house 31 times. My sister packed Antigua, Botswana and Kenya into her short life. Only my brother inherited the clearly recessive security gene. So he provides the stability and permanence from which the rest of us boomerang out.

The one thing Steve and I have always had in common is our delight in travelling down an unknown road. However much I love a place, it can never compete with what else might be out there. If that’s sounds dissatisfying; it is not. I do not yearn for bigger, better, shinier. I am happy when I arrive at a new place and happy to settle in. And I am also frequently sad to leave, though that is more because of the people I am leaving than the place itself.

But I am greedy for life, and aware that there is so much out there undiscovered by me. Waiting for me. Irresistible. And this life – this wandering life – suits my vagabond heart, and answers the call of generations of footsteps locked in my DNA. ‘Where now? Where next?’ These were surely the whispers I heard in the crib.