Tag Archives: Scenery

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

Bohemian Rhapsody

Standard

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.)

IMG_2633

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.

IMG_2178

 

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.

IMG_2231IMG_2240IMG_2234

 

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.

IMG_2550

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.

 

 

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).

The land of plastic sheeting

Standard

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.

plastic-sheeting-in-almeria

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.

img_1435img_1440

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.

img_1471

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.

img_1478

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