Category Archives: Uncategorized

Angloville 1: the dumpling days

Standard

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.

IMG_3294

pwh-7359

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.

IMG_3381

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.

IMG_3319

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.

IMG_3329

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

DAY SIX – FRIDAY

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

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

Thanks for reading xxxxx

Oh Vienna

Standard

A WORD ABOUT ROAD SIGNS

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_3594

 

BUT BACK TO AUSTRIA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HUNTING FOR WOOL

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

IMG_3150

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

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

IMG_3147

Tidiness was not a priority.

IMG_3138

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

ARTY STUFF

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

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

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

IMG_3189

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

P.S.

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

The Five-Petaled Rose

Standard

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.

IMG_2706

The Rosenbergs arrive

 

IMG_2725

 

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

IMG_2721

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.

IMG_2759

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.

IMG_2816

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.

20170616_220306

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.

 

 

 

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

Standard

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?!?

48 HOURS EARLIER

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.

20170517_122503

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.

IMG_2142

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.

IMG_2154

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).

IMG_2165

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.

IMG_2159

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

Standard

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).

IMG_1855

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.

IMG_1888IMG_1929

IMG_1948

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.

IMG_1991

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.

20170512_153702

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.

images

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.

IMG_2093

IMG_2088

Georgie is 6th from the left

IMG_2090

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.

 

 

Georgie gets mugged by the Mistral

Standard

I remember learning about the Mistral in Geography, over a million years ago when I was at school. At the time, it honestly never crossed my mind that anything I learnt there had any relevance to my life, devoid as it was of subject choices such as How to date Donny Osmond and The Politics of the School Bus.

But now I wish I’d paid more attention. Because, although Georgie didn’t get blown off the road or rolled onto her side (she does weigh 7.5 tons, remember), and although Nibbles didn’t get blown clear into Switzerland, we did suffer an awful lot of damage.

Here’s how it went.

After leaving Mini Hollywood we headed off towards our next destinations – Barcelona and Figueres, because I wanted to do some arty stuff and see lots of Gaudi and Dali.

About halfway there we found an Aire on the spectacular Delta de l’Ebre, near Amposta. This sweet little nature reserve contained a spit of sandy beach cradling a lagoon, and a series of wild fowl breeding lakes surrounded by reclaimed land that was used for growing rice. The reed beds, paddy fields, duck population and river estuary had produced a unique and sustainable way of life that had flourished for centuries.

But now it was mostly home to thousands of flamingos. Oh yes.

I loved it because I’ve only ever seen them in zoos, and a flamingo in flight is a glorious thing. For starters, they have the most vibrant salmon pink armpits, and you see stripes of white, black and rich pink as they soar above you. Plus, they make an almost perfect X shape. Don’t know why that’s cool; it just is. And lastly, they can’t always be bothered to straighten their long necks, so they flap along looking like they’ve swallowed a bent coat hanger. Great big pink comedy birds. Brilliant.

We saw Marsh Harriers, Kingfishers, Purple Herons and loads more that we couldn’t identify because they were chased away by the Marsh Harriers. The view out of our front window was of a small pond called El Clot. I’m not making this up.

IMG_1736

But, in the middle of this idyll, we got the news that our lovely brother-in-law, Nigel, had been rushed to hospital, and it was serious. Very serious. Within a few days it became clear that there was little-to-no hope for a positive outcome, so we packed up and started driving home as fast as we could. Heart-breaking.

We rushed around Barcelona, shot off up into France and ended up at another Aire, this time not so picturesque. It was located in the car park of a run-down looking café, and run by a smiley and smelly old drunk gentleman who lived in a caravan in the corner. He only let us have ten minutes worth of water and then invited himself to coffee with us when we went to breakfast in the caff.

The next day we made an early start for Toulouse. The wind had been picking up and the land was very flat. However, the forecast said that it would become tornado-strength if we stayed where we were, whilst Toulouse was predicted to be calmer. And I’d forgotten everything I ever learnt about the Mistral.

So that’s where it all fell apart – quite literally.

We’d hardly gone 10 miles when, simultaneously, Steve heard a banging noise, and I – driving behind in Nibbles – saw something swinging out from Georgie’s left side. It appeared that the awning that tops the slide-out had become loose, so we pulled in as quickly as possible…

…and jumped out into 100kph winds…

…to find the awning had broken free of it’s fixings at the front and was flailing around like an octopus in a horror film.

It slammed up onto the roof and back out into the traffic as we tried to grab it, and we saw that it had started to rip apart. The fixings were broken and scattered across the road: we had no choice but to try and tear it off in one piece, and stow it in the van. (I spent the rest of the journey tripping over the damn thing, as it was bungeed to the table leg to stop it rolling around when we drove.)

The slam on the roof had dislodged the grill from the air-conditioner, but that was a problem for later. Right now, the difficulty was staying on the road and in one piece. We put everything heavy we could find into Nibbles’ boot to give me more stability, but nothing could stop the wind opening the front outside locker on the RV every half a mile or so. That journey took a long time. A really, really long time.

But we got to Toulouse in one piece and the wind lessened enough for the rain to start tipping down and pouring through the broken air-conditioning unit. That slam on the roof had smashed the plastic cover to pieces. It was not safe for anyone to go up there (even if we aren’t both really bad with heights, which, obviously, we are), so we put out a bucket and went to bed.

For the following days we just drove up towards Calais. The Eurotunnel is a brilliant way to travel quickly and is cheaper than the ferries. The queues were quite small, so I ended up shunted onto an earlier one in Nibbles, then had to hang around and wait for Steve to show up in Georgie. Bit panicky: thought I’d missed him. Plus, this driving on the left-hand side of the road felt a bit weird.

Sadly, by then, our brother-in-law had passed away, painlessly at least. So we went back to the site we’d stayed at previously, in Sevenoaks, and went to visit Steve’s sister to see if we could help.

We still had the problem of the broken awning and there happened to be a Caravan and Camping Show that weekend, which seemed like a good place to go for help and advice about getting a new one. But it turns out you can’t, really. Have to get them sent in from the States.

But we did get some brilliant stick-on solar panels (see the Reith Xmas lecture) and a jar of lemon curd, so that wasn’t wasted. And Steve realised that we had enough material left in the original to re-attach it if we were careful. And bought the right glue. Or tape. Or both.

In the caravan next door were Andy and Jo and their little daughter Khalisi (I know, right?). And if there’s one thing that we can rely in in this life, it’s that as soon as Steve starts messing around with tools, blokes start gathering. Blokes on campsites with little else to do. Blokes who no longer have a garage or a garden shed. Blokes who like being useful. It’s just moths to a flame, honey. And so Andy was great in helping us to fix the awnings.

(Notice I said ‘awnings’, plural. Because of course, our other awning had a broken piece too – that had nearly taken out our friend Phil’s shoulder when it snapped in Seville. But now we had an address and so the postman kept turning up with replacement grommets of metal, and new, unbroken and un-leaky bathroom sink taps, and the wrong strength bed struts – of which more, later.)

I glued and taped the old awning over the rubber ‘piping’, while the guys filled holes, re-drilled them and reconnected the holdings for the awning. Steve had found a place in Seal that sold us new metal rods that they’d drilled holes into at a charge of £28. If you added in the cost of the tape, glue, and the pop-riveter, then the whole lot came to under £60, which is fantastic when compared to the £800 it would have cost us to get a replacement. My husband is bloody great that way.

Then Andy and Jo had to up sticks and move to another pitch on site, so it was left to me to help Steve put the awning back in place. That meant spending a whole day on the roof, half of it hanging over the side supporting the weight of a very heavy pole and awning. I am so effing proud of myself – I even did the pop-riveting (new skill)! Then we had to re-tension the other awning, and I’m making this sound much easier than it was.

By now we’d said goodbye to our lovely Nigel at one of the most moving funerals I have ever been to (I’m not going to talk about it), caught up with the grandkids, and moved on to a site near Henley on Thames. It was a beautiful site, right by the river, and we were a given a fully serviced pitch. This meant that we had electricity and a constant water supply, PLUS we didn’t have to move the van to empty our tanks – we could just drop a hose down the hole and let it drain out, as and when. Luxury.

We met a lovely couple called Les and Christine, who told us stories about meeting their dads, for pretty much the first time, after the war.

Les hadn’t seen his for seven years, and was not best pleased when this stranger appeared and ousted him from his place in the double bed with his mum. On a crowded bus he loudly demanded to know, ‘Mum, is that soldier gonna be sleeping in your bed again tonight?’ To which his mother, much to the disbelief of all the other passengers, hissed, ‘He is not a soldier: he is an Airman, and he is your father’.

Christine said she hadn’t seen her father since she was a toddler, with a gap between her two front teeth. One day, she saw a guy with a limp and a stick walking past her on her way to school, but she didn’t like the look of him so she gave him a wide bearth. As the family had recently been re-housed, the man took one look at the young girl, recognised here tooth-gap and called after her, ‘Oi, Christine – where does your mammy live?’ Terrified, she yelled, ‘Down there,’ and scarpered. Later, she said, ‘Mammy was nowhere to be seen and the bedroom door was locked.’

I spent another day on the roof, this time with Steve, sticking down our swanky solar panels. So when my sister’s husband came to visit, there was Steve with his tool box out again. Adam (being a bloke) had a lovely day helping him sort out all the wiring. Thanks, mate.

However, not all our DIY has been quite so successful. For instance, before we left the UK, we bought a newish mattress on Ebay. It was slightly longer, and certainly heavier, than the old one so the gas-filled bed struts that raised the bed base had slowly given up the ghost. Steve ordered new ones but the fixings were different.

So, bought wood. Cut and glued. Drilled holes. Bought bolts. Eventually fitted new struts. Then found out that Steve appeared to have had a brain-fart and bought struts that would lift Georgie, let alone our bed. After several hours spent sweating away in a confined space (and not in a good way), we realised we didn’t have the combined weight or strength to push the bed base down. An elephant sitting on our bed might‘ve just about managed it, but it would’ve needed to be a real porker.

So, we started again. Undid the lot. Ordered the correct ones. Searched for the pieces that belonged to the first struts. Panicked because Steve thought he’d thrown them away.

I left Steve to fit the new ones.

There then ensued a lot of huffing and puffing and swearing, so I went to investigate. Steve had decided to save time fitting the new parts by holding up the entire weight of the bead and base …. on his head. He was starting to complain about his back hurting, so I asked him why he hadn’t removed the heavy mattress first. He said, and I quote, ‘You don’t really understand men, do you?

And on to Stafford. Where there was Kevin – the only chap in the UK who could sort out the condensation in our windows. Not a big problem, except in the driver and passenger door windows, where this would stop us getting the MOT. We parked on his driveway, and spent four hours learning how to get the damn things out (saving ourselves £150 per window, but hastening our divorce). And it only took two and a half hours to learn how to put them back in.

IMG_1829

Filling in the gap with a patchwork of foam board.

Which brings us to today. Penkridge. And the last bits and bobs are getting done before the MOT tomorrow. Steve is just off to Halfords, I don’t even care what for.

And, oh joy, all that time at Henley has caused a toilet blockage. Because the water was constantly draining, the tissue just sat there and dried out. Now we have a tissue mountain. Fuck, fucketty fuck.

So before we move off to Bath on Thursday, we will need to fill up the waste tank with water so that it can slosh around for the whole drive down, loosening … things, and leaving the most God-awful smell. Words can’t describe.

And that’s when the family are coming to visit.

When people ask me ‘Are you having wonderful adventures?’ (which they do, by the way, a lot), I say, ‘Yes’. Despite the certain knowledge that what they mean by ‘adventure’ and what I am discovering it means, are poles apart.

Have I ticked any of the great wonders of the world off my bucket list? No. Have I been to truly awesome and unexplored places? No. But can I pop-rivet, conquer my fear of heights, take out an RV window, and take dodgy toilets in my stride? Hell, yes. Life skills, baby, life skills (just not necessarily aspirational ones).

Mini Hollywood

Standard

Once upon a time an Italian film director rocked up in the Sierra Nevada in to make a movie. That movie starred Clint Eastwood as the famous ‘man with no name’ (this was cool then, I promise), so he went on to make a few more. All westerns. With fabulous titles such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which is so uber. And when he’d finished, all the locals who’d been extras in the films, clubbed together and bought the set that he’d built.

IMG_1721

It’s been run as a tourist attraction for the last fifty years, although it’s owned by a hotel chain now. But honestly, who can resist a complete Western town of backless buildings? Not me. Steve wasn’t that keen to go: he thought it would be okay-ish and that I’d enjoy it much more than him. Boy, was he wrong; it was ACE!!!! And in all the wrong ways.

The best way to get there is to follow Deirdre the sat-nav slut as she takes you the long way around through the mountains. Although we programmed in the quickest way, please, she has selective hearing and prefers to meander. But the mountain route is spectacular and really gets you in the mood. Cacti. Ravines. Sparseness. And in the distance – ooh look, teepees.

So we fetch up at the entrance, which has weird disney characters and odd cowboys on the signage, and is looking a bit the worse for wear. And this is when I start to get very happy, because I love things that are a little bit crap so much more than things that are shiny and impressive.

Because of Dierdre’s navigation we’ve arrived half-way though the can-can show, so we give that a miss and explore the ‘town’. It has everything you would expect; a saloon, a gaol, a bank, etc., but also a mine shaft, a blacksmith, stables, shops, a schoolroom, moonshine stills and – of all things – a local Rabbi.

A photographer is taking pictures of people in costume, so Indian squaws and saloon girls keep crossing in front of us. Children run around in cowboy hats kicking up clouds of yellow dust. And honky-tonk piano music bangs out of the saloon, as the girls dance to the sound of gun-shots and well-choreographed whoops.

We have some time before the next performance of the Wild West Spectacular (and I just know it’s not going to be – I can hardly wait), so we head for the parrot display.

The parrot display? you ask.

Oh yes – because there is a zoo here as well!

And the parrot display is extra brilliant because it is all in Spanish and we can’t understand a thing. It consists of birds with beautiful plumage doing odd tricks, such as finding which cup the ball is under, or doing maths and ringing a bell to show the answer.

There is always a long lead up, with lots of ‘oooh’s from the audience, so we are quite keyed up about what to expect. Then a lady at the back of the auditorium releases a lovely cockatoo with champagne pink feathers and buttercup armpits (wingpits?). And its special skill is ….. flying! I swear. It swoops over our heads to land on the talking chappie’s arm, then flies back again, all to enthusiastic applause. Same thing with a little green parakeet with scarlet armpits. Very pretty, but not exactly a superpower, I think.

IMG_1654

Then we head for the big animals. Steve is interested in the Rhinos which, on close inspection, are a serious bit of kit. But I fall involve with the giraffe, who comes to the fence and lets us all stroke her head. I know it’s cupboard love and she’s looking for grass, but I’m enchanted anyway.

Her enclosure – as with all the animals – has the most amazing view. The zoo sprawls out over the surrounding hillsides, rugged, rocky, and sun-drenched. The mountains fill the horizon. It is more like being on safari than my normal experience of a zoo. I have to keep pinching myself.

Then it is time for us to head back into town for the Wild West show. We get a coffee in the saloon and find a nice spot on a balcony. Steve suggests that they might ask for volunteers, and that I should definitely go for it. I’m so tempted, but then I realise that it wouldn’t work because all of their instructions would be in Spanish.’What instructions do you need to be roped and dragged along the ground by a horse?‘ asks Steve. Good point. You can tell we’ve been married a long time, can’t you.

We are told that the show is going to be an enactment of the last stand of Jessie James. Well alrighty. And this is how it goes:-

The sheriff and his deputy drive a horse and cart into town. The sheriff is pointing his rifle at a guy in the back who is tied up. Oh no – it’s the infamous Jessie James – who then proceeds to quietly jump out of the cart and wait patiently for the sheriff to get down. Not so tough, then. Reckon he had a good spin doctor.

The sheriff puts his rifle in the cart, which then gets parked around the corner. Bit short-sighted, methinks, because although Jessie starts walking calmly to the gaol, it suddenly occurs to him that he doesn’t have to. Bit of string around his wrists, but no actual gun pointed at him. But instead of legging it, he does the old throw my hat on the ground manoeuvre and picks a fight.

He gets biffed up quite a bit before the sheriff remembers he has a pistol (which Jessie has specularly failed to grab from his holster, despite copious opportunity). Jessie now wanders amiably into the gaol, sometimes at gun-point, but mostly not, and locks himself inside. If I were him I would have been very embarrassed, but Mr Thicky James now bellows out of the window at the injustice of having to gaol himself.

Then we get something is about to happen music. For ages.

A guy in a long coat rides right through the centre of the town square. He may have borrowed it from Harry Potter because, although he is clearly visible to everybody, the sheriff patrolling the balcony totally fails to spot him. He sneaks noisily up the stairs and promptly chucks the sheriff off onto a handy pile of straw. The sheriff decides to have a bit of a snooze.

Another chap in an invisibility coat rides into the town with a rope. Together they tie it to the bars of the cell window and the horse pulls the whole shebang out. Jessie jumps through the gap. Hoorah.

Then the new chap decides not to tie up the sheriff. Instead, he positions himself behind a too small barrel and waits for the sheriff to wake up and start shooting at him. It all kicks off and now a deputy runs out from the gaol and joins in the fray. He’s been there all this time and done nothing! What a plank.

Jessie rides out and stops to offer barrel-guy a jump-up, but rides off before he can do it. You know – just before: he’s that guy. And then the other invisible-coat chap does the same. So barrel-guy gets shot. A lot.

Jessie waits until barrel-guy is really dead then, rather than make a clean break out of town on his horse, he jumps off and hides behind a too small water trough. Perhaps this is an homage thing, I don’t know, but I’m sensing a pattern.

And now the sheriff and two deputies are spaced out and training their guns on him, so he stands up and runs into the middle of the triangle. And gets shot. What a surprise, who knew?

But miracles happen (although not to Jessie) and barrel-guy is resurrected despite being shot, like, fifteen times. However, he is still an idiot. The sheriff and his deputies are wandering back to the gaol and – rather than fake it until they go inside and then make his escape – he waits until the sheriff (armed) is next to him (unarmed) and then he gets up and picks another fight.

And it doesn’t go so well and he’s marched off – showing no resistance at all – to the convenient gallows. Honestly, there’s no helping some people. But maybe the whole gang comes from the same shallow gene pool, because then the invisible-coat guy who had escaped rides back into town for the sheriff and his deputies to shoot at him again.

The sheriff chases after him and it is left to the two deputies to get the hanging done. This takes a lot longer than you’d think. Even though he’s strung up and his feet are off the ground, they are all still having a right barney and there is a considerable amount of bad-tempered spitting and kicking. Eventually, the music signals it’s time to stop, so he does a sort of mid-air M C Hammer dance, then waves at all the children, and slumps. Really dead this time. I think.

And now the sheriff comes back and, boy, did he earn his star! Not only did he outrun a galloping horse on foot, but he pulled an armed man off it, caught the horse (without being shot by the armed man), and has now roped and dragged said armed invisible-coat man back into town. Oh yes.

One of the deputies checks that the coaty is alright, before helping him to his feet in order to throw him down again. The dead guy on the gallows pipes up, ‘Shoot him!‘ and promptly gets shot again. Really, really dead, this time.

Now deputy number one waits calmly for coaty to get to his feet again, and starts beating him up. Despite all the yelling, deputy number two continues his sedate walk towards the gaol house. Perhaps there’s been some Health and Safety initiatives, because he doesn’t seem to want to get very involved. And although he has a gun, deputy number one prefers a good old fist fight, it seems. Maybe they are being too noisy, because deputy number two does turn around and points his gun at coaty until he stops fighting. But I don’t think he likes the other deputy much because he then wanders off and lets them carry on.

And suddenly – DRAMA! Coaty has got the deputy’s pistol and has shot the sheriff! Deputy number two has to do something now – he’s beginning to look more than slack – so he does more gun pointing. And coaty – despite being a crack shot (unlike the law, apparently), and only facing a deputy who clearly doesn’t give a shit, and having nothing to lose – throws his pistol back to deputy number one and puts his hands in the air. Mental! Coaty then plays his last card. ‘I’m unarmed,‘ he says. Well, who’s fault is that!

So, get this – they give him a gun!?! And now I see how it was all part of deputy number two’s master plan (cue evil laugh). He waits until coaty has shot the other deputy, then smartly polishes him off. One bullet. He’s given the undertaker plenty of work (bet they’re related) and has risen very sharply up the ranks to become the sheriff of a Jessie James-free town. Neat. Then gallows guy resurrects again, and helps to put the bars back into the gaol house window. Swell.

The kids bloody loved it, and they all got to sit on the horses afterwards and have their pictures taken with the idiot gang. I Googled Jessie James and it turns out he was shot in the back of the head, by one of his own gang, in his own home. So I don’t know what we just saw but I know which version I preferred, and it was here, at Mini Hollywood.

Homeward bound, and the head-board from hell

Standard

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.

img_1531

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.

img_1524

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.

img_1444

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.

img_1549

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.

img_1552

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.

image1

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.

 

 

 

Pilgrims and wanderers

Standard

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.

img_0330

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.