Monday, 24 November 2014

Day 3 in Figueira da Foz

The sun shines in Figueira da Foz. Well, it has done today anyway. I heard one of the hotel staff say to an old dear in the breakfast room this morning, "E como la primavera!" And indeed it was spring-like and even summery later. There have even been butterflies and lizards around! Jolly good, say I. They have forecast a cold snap for the UK, perhaps the tail end of the awful cold weather the USA is having. We have escaped at the right time! 

Figueira is a place of cobbled pavements, small white cobbles for the most part, only occasionally arranged in patterns of other colours. It makes a much pleasanter-looking surface than the ubiquitous tarmac pavements of the north west of England. Whatever happened to paving stones? Is that why so few children play hopscotch these days? Paving stones provided a ready made hopscotch patch. 

Much of the architecture around here is standard blocks of, mostly low-rise, flats, interspersed with strange modernistic towers such as this one. 

Then there are bits of older walls and towers, almost fortifications. Near our hotel they are probably the remains of the old estate, Quinta de Souto (or Sotto) Maior. 

Our route into the centre, where the chess tournament is taking place in the casino, goes past large private gardens, locked away behind high wall, glimpsed through padlocked gates. Most intriguing!

And on the streets the trees are rapidly shedding leaves but spots of colour remain. 

The chess player got off to a good start yesterday morning, despite having to get up for a 10 o' clock game which he won. So we went off to lunch in good spirits. We made a rapid choice of lunch venue as the rain was coming on quite hard, even though I had managed to walk along the beach without getting wet earlier. 

At a little place called O Picadeiro we shared a salada mixta (2.50€) and arroz con sardinhas (10.50€) along with a half litre of white wine (3.00€), water (0.80€) and bread (1.00€), all very reasonable. We (semi-deliberately) made the mistake of eating the anchovies and oil-drizzled wholemeal bread that appeared on the table. This Portuguese habit of putting apparent freebies on the table and then charging you for them is a bit naughty, especially when they charge you 4.00€ for half a dozen anchovies and a bit of bread. But, hey, just under 20.00€ for lunch for two is all right! And the sardines and rice were very good! 

What surprised us most was the smoking. We were going to sit inside the restaurant but people were smoking there so we went onto the covered veranda instead. Clearly smoking was accepted for there were ashtrays. So later I googled the question. from what I found out Portugal seems to be where Spain was a while ago. Small places can decide whether to allow smoking but need to put up a sign to that effect. Otherwise every restaurant need a designated smoking section. This one seemed to be flouting the rules either way. But it's the first we've seen. 

As for the chess player, he lost his evening game Was it the lunch? Who knows? He has just left for this evening's match and, misquoting Scarlett O'Hara, today is another day!

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Investigating eateries.

On Friday, still reacquainting ourselves with the geography of Figueira da Foz - it is, after all, just over three years since we were here and even then it was only for a week - we looked up restaurant reviews on Trip Advisor before going out to eat. As was to be expected, we ended up wandering around for a while until we came to a restaurant which seemed to be patronised by a fair number of locals, usually a good sign, and ended up going in there. 

The first challenge was getting in: through a kind of airlock where one door needed pulling and the next needed sliding. Far too complicated for everyone. While we were in the restaurant we saw at least five people having difficulty, trying in vain to pull or push the sliding door. 

Then came the menu, which almost completely defeated my Portuguese. I could recognise ingredients but the dishes themselves remained a mystery. My Portuguese went as far as asking an important-looking waiter - later identified in a newspaper photograph as the owner - what he recommended. 

He tried to steer us towards a "mariscada", only 75€ for two people. However, we have had that kind of seafood platter before and have found them slightly disappointing. They look impressive but they demand a huge amount of work with crab-claw-crackers for precious little actual food in return. Not our thing at all. 

Instead, we followed his other recommendation and tried "Massada rica", a pasta dish with prawns, bits of fish and chunks of lobster, all in a tasty sauce. Phil likened it to a Galician fish soup served on a plate instead of in a bowl, which was quite true. Even though the lobster needed prizing out of its shell, on the whole it proved to be a good and nourishing meal at the end of a long day's travel. Together with some fresh bread and a glass or two of white wine, it suited us fine. And for around 35€ all in, it didn't break the bank. 

Now, this restaurant, the Bigode Preto or Black Moustache, was not one of those reviewed by Trip Advisor. Since there was a sign on the wall declaring it had been there "since 1994", we wondered why not. For those of us who have been around since the mid-twentieth century, 1994 may seem quite recent. But we need to adjust to being in the twenty-first century and realise that 1994 was twenty years ago now. So, why no reviews? Silver-surfers that we are, we went back and googled it. 

And eventually we found it ... in a Coimbra newspaper article about the opening of that very restaurant ... about 10 days ago!!! The owner, our waiter, spoke of how he had always dreamed of opening a restaurant. Where did 1994 come into it? Maybe that was when he started to dream! 

Last night, Saturday, was quite different. We were invited to the official tournament opening ceremony and dinner. Glasses of Port wine were served (as always, stickier than I remember) while people assembled: chess players and local bigwigs. Speeches of thanks were made: to the municipality, to the casino where the games will be played, to our hotel, to other hotels, to sponsors of all kinds. Then speeches were made in praise of the great and good of the local chess world. Small sections of three or four words at a time made their way into my brain. The rest went over my head completely. Clearly I need to study harder! 

 Dinner was fine: mushroom soup, cod served tastefully on a "nest" of spinach and accompanied by scoops of mashed potato, followed by chocolate cake and ice cream. We talked a mix of English and Portuguese, more of the former than the latter. The Portuguese chess players seem more linguistically able than Spanish ones we have met. 

 More speeches followed, introducing the international players. After all, it is billed as an international event. Most were mentioned for being well known Grand Masters and so on. Phil also had to stand up and be applauded, as the UK's representative and for having had to visit the hospital with a fish bone in his throat last time we were here. 

Fame of sorts!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

To Portugal

So, after several days of running around making sure I had purchase odds and ends we needed (extra adaptor plugs, having left our supply in Vigo), here we are in Portugal. As well as all the running around, there was a rush of necessary phone calls: a dental appointment to change, friends I need to see before Christmas, arranging for a chimney sweep to come, booking tickets for a carol service, among other things. And then there was the ritual of weighing the suitcases, of which more in a paragraph or so. 

We are in Portugal for a chess tournament at Figueira da Foz, a place by the sea, popular with the Portuguese in the summer time, when I hear that its immense beach positively heaves with holidaymakers. Rather gentile and quiet at the moment, with soft rain splattering on the swimming pool. But it's very mild and, you never know, we might even get some sunshine. 

Anyway, the ritual weighing of the suitcases. For a number of years we have only ever travelled hand-luggage-only. It's not just that we are cheapskates, although it is noticeably cheaper when you don't have bags to check into the hold. The main advantage is being able to get off the plane and stride out of the airport without waiting for the carrousel to spit out your luggage. And so we have a handy gadget to weigh our bags, ensuring that we are within the limits set by the airline. 

Now, this time we travelled with a Portuguese airline. They are ever so nice and friendly and polite. They even do old-fashioned things like give you assigned seats on budget flights. And they give you free food and drinks during the flight. None of the meanness of other budget airlines we could mention. However, and it's quite a big however, about two kilos worth of however, their hand-luggage weight limit is only eight kilos. And that has to include my handbag and its contents! So I started off putting in a suitcase all the stuff I wanted to bring and Phil did the same. Then we weighed them. Then we took stuff out and weighed them again. Then we moved stuff around from one bag to the other and weighed them again. 

Of course, it was extra complicated because I HAD to bring my hair straighteners and the chess player HAD to bring all sorts of chess related gear. And there are the electricals - computer, iPad, iPhones, Spanish phones because we are going on to Vigo after the tournament - and their associated chargers and cables. When we simply go to Vigo, of course, we don't need quite as much paraphernalia as we have duplicates for some things in the flat there. But this time, with a reduced luggage allowance we needed more stuff. Nightmare! Sacrifices were made! My running gear went by the board; in Portugal I shall only walk and running will wait until we get to Spain. We have one iPad between us instead of one each. Of course, I know that this is all luxury stuff and we are spoiled and so on but our status as retired baby-boomers allows us to do this. 

But finally here we are, after an overnight stop chez offspring number one and his little family. Budget flights do not go from the northwest of England to the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula in the winter months. Clearly northerners only want to go to sunny Spain and the Algarve. Only Londoners are expected to fly to more "cultured" places. And so we flew from Gatwick and will fly back the same way, making another, slightly longer family visit en route for home. 

We were ever so kindly met by a friend of the chess tournament organiser at Oporto airport and driven here to Figueira da Foz. I tried out my Michel Thomas Portuguese on him during the journey. All my plans to study really hard between going home from Spain and coming here and to learn a great pile of vocabulary every day went by the board, naturally. But, haltingly and with a fair amount of Spanish and Italian coming out of my mouth, Antonio and I discussed motorway systems, the corruption of politicians, the state of Scotland, the Irish question and, inevitably, the fact that I DON'T actually play chess. Serious stuff. I quite impressed myself. 

More about the delights of eating out in Figueira and generally being out and about will come over the next week. For the moment, an "uplifting" finish. Almost everywhere we go in Spain, the lifts are provided by the Otis company. This hotel uses a different company. 

We brought our suitcases up to our room in Schindler's lift! What more can I say?

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Claiming what is yours! And other stuff.

Whatever we may think of George Osborne in his handling of the nation's finances, he keeps tight control of the milk in his fridge in the Treasury. He has a padlock on the door of the fridge and there is also a guard. This is reported by the SENIOR political correspondent of the Telegraph. You would think such a senior person might have more important things to do. 

I can sympathise with poor George Osborne about the milk situation, however. In the staff room of one place I worked at we suffered from milk stealers among the teachers. Some people thought that whatever was in the fridge was legally everyone's and treated it accordingly. I even used to label my bottle of milk, politely explaining that it was, in fact, MY milk but if people were unscrupulous enough to steal it that I would appreciate their leaving enough for me to have a cup of coffee later. It didn't work. They usually left the empty bottle though. You would have thought they could at least rinse it out! 

Such are the people who are influencing the minds of the younger generation. And, it seems, running the country. I hold my hands up in horror. 

And then Turkey's president has been claiming that Muslims discovered America in 1178. But Vikings and Basques also claim to have been there first. Whose country is it anyway? It's all a bit childish, like kids pulling their tongues out at each other or thumbing their noses, declaring loudly, "I saw it first!!!" Load of nonsense but a bit of light relief in a world with too many serious things going on. Such as politicians stealing each other's milk. 

Maybe the milk thieves are following the example of a certain lady prime minister who was known, after all, as the milk snatcher. Not that she stole from the Treasury fridge but she did stop free milk to primary schools. Ah, the nostalgia! Little bottles of milk in crates outside the classroom: frozen in the depths of winter and slightly rancid in he height of summer! 

Mind you, according to some sources, we should stop drinking it. Some research shows that people who drink too much milk are at greater risk of heart attacks and other diseases. Who knew? Maybe we should just go on a bread and water diet! With perhaps a little cabbage thrown in! 

The cabbage comes from my Italian class this afternoon where we looked at idiomatic expressions involving "cavolo", Italian for cabbage. If you want to say, " What the ****!" you can simply say, "Che cavolo". In French they use cabbage as a term of endearment: "mon petit chou!" In English we can use it to suggest an air of stupidity or perhaps naivety: "he's not so green as he's cabbage-looking". But for the Italians it serves as a harmless replacement for swearing. Because I suspect that's how it started, putting "cavolo" in expressions where a much ruder word beginning with "c" might have caused offence. 

Idiomatic expressions are odd, especially when inadvertently and mistakenly changed. Someone was ranting on the Mind Your Language Blog in the Guardian about people saying "He's got another THING coming" instead of "He's got another THINK coming" when they want to say that someone is mistaken in their expectations about something. I quite agree with the ranter and I was put in mind of a German friend of mine who went around protesting when asked to do something unreasonable by saying, " I can't be asked to do that!" Then her daughter pointed out that it was really a much ruder expression than that. Oops! 

Finally, two silly stories about Peppa Pig, the children's TV series. First of all, in the series there is a character called Gabriella Goat. When the series was dubbed into Italian she became Gabriella Capra. A lady by the name of Gabriella Capra is suing the BBC because she has since been mocked by lots of people in her village. I wonder why no-one found her name funny before. And secondly, someone bought a Peppa Pig costume to wear to a playgroup fundraising event. She paid £210 pound for the costume to be sent from China but it was confiscated upon arrival in the UK for violating intellectual property rights. Apparently it had to be destroyed! 

You could not make up such stories of you tried.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Colourful oddities.

Out and about in recent weeks I have had occasion to comment on the colours of autumn, indeed to post pictures of the colours of autumn onto Facebook. 

Today we once again spotted some trees showing off their autumn colours. The surprising thing was that these seemed to be fir trees. The shape looked right for fir trees but they appeared to be turning a golden brown colour. Surely fir trees are not mean to do is. So intrigued were we that when we came close enough we took a picture of a couple. Are we mistaken? Are these not fir trees after all? Or has the world gone mad?

In Alice in Wonderland the queen of hearts has some playing cards painting white roses red. At least I seem to remember that that was going on. No-one ever really explained why it was necessary to do so. In any case, if you disobeyed the queen you were likely to lose your head. In the House of Commons gardens recently they have had gardeners picking yellow leaves off trees rather than leave them to fall and sweep them up. A spokesman is reported to have said, "it is more time efficient". There have been accusations of the government cancelling autumn. Life imitating literature perhaps! 

Then there's the doughnut burger, eaten as a challenge by Zoe Williams of the Guardian. It consisted of two burgers, two sugar doughnuts, bacon, cheese and some kind of relish. Standing seven inches tall, it needed squashing down to a biteable size. Why would anyone want to eat that, even for a newspaper challenge! The world is mad. She didn't manage to eat it all but did get through three quarters of the disgusting object. 

Another bit of oddness! I heard that a tiger was spotted prowling around in the woods near Paris. Children were escorted home from school by police. People were advised to stay indoors. No zoo reported a missing tiger. Yesterday I read that there is some belief that the tracks found were actually those of a dog. How disappointing! I commented on this to some friends who were visiting this weekend. They live in France but have seen no wandering tigers. One of them, however, swears that she did once see a panther near Cambridge when they lived nearby. But I have also read that most places have myths of big cats on the prowl. Most of the photographic evidence has been proved to be wrong, not wilfully so, just mistaken. Some of the romance and excitement is taken away by such reports. 

Romance is not dead though. The Rosetta mission has delivered the "lander" Philae, dropped bouncing onto Comet 67P. This has excited everyone and awakened dreams of space travel once again. The Philae has sent a lot of data for the scientists to examine but its solar-powered batteries are not getting enough sun to recharge and it almost certainly can't continue. Such a shame, but what names, what poetry: the Rosetta satellite went up there to land Philae, there's a measuring instrument called Ptolemy and the on-board camera is Osiris. Names to conjure the imagination. And yet people are writing letters to the papers saying that the lander should be looking for life. The dream of meeting aliens is not dead. 

Finally, the weekend newspapers publish lists of birthdays of famous people, often more people I have never heard of. Sometimes, though, the names themselves are enough to amuse me. Yesterday I discovered that Billy Twelvetrees, a rugby player was 26 years old. Is it really possible for someone who is not a hobbit to have a name like Twelvetrees? 

Bits of poetry all over the place!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Reading headlines, anticipating Christmas and electronics - groups of three.

Here is the headline to an article in yesterday's Guardian newspaper: Romanian and Bulgarian workers in UK up 50,000 after curbs lifted. 

And here is the sub-headline: Britons account for two-thirds of extra jobs and are not being displaced by migrants, Labour Force Survey finds. 

So the headline suggests that the article is all about the increase in workers from Romania and Bulgaria but in fact it's not really about that at all. It gives a much more balanced view of the situation of immigration and employment. Figures for increased immigration generally were given. And yes, immigration has continued to increase, from both EU and non-EU countries. It goes on, however, to say: 
"But the Labour Force Survey provides little evidence of displacement of British workers by migrants. British workers accounted for two-thirds or 445,000 of the extra 675,000 people working in the British economy. Foreign nationals accounted for 230,000 or one-third of the increase in employment over the past year." 

The article also tells of a 30,000 reduction in EU immigration in June to September of this year. Just in case you thought this was because of our PM's efforts, it goes on to explain: 
"But the fall is more likely to do with seasonal variations than as a result of David Cameron’s high profile campaign to restrict free movement rights across Europe." 

So it's not just tabloid newspapers that use misleading headlines. No wonder people are so confused about the state of the world. 

Here's another example. We are led to believe that vast amounts of our taxes are spent on things to do with Europe. Well, today I received a letter from the taxman. Not a demand for extra tax, nor a (more pleasant) tax refund, the letter began: "For the first time we are sending you an Annual tax Summary." And it did just that, telling me how much money I have received and from where, as well as how much of that is taxed and how much tax they have taken from me. On the reverse was a nice little graph of how the money they take from me is used. 

Contrary to what excited propaganda might have us believe, a tiny proportion goes to the UK contribution to the EU budget. In fact if you put together what goes to the EU budget, to overseas aid, to the environment and to culture, that comes to the same as what is spent on defence. I wonder if I could opt out of contributing to defence spending! 

Imagine, though, the chaos if we could all opt out of or into paying our individual taxes into different bits of the annual budget. Those without children, or who send their children to expensive fee-paying private schools, might opt out of contributing to Education. The permanently healthy, and those with huge health insurance plans, might opt out of Health. Young people might stop contributing to State Pensions. Better to leave stuff as it is and just try to vote some more sensible people into government. 

 Other things! Last Friday they had the official ceremony to switch on the Christmas lights in central Manchester. (Cue for a fair amount of comment about how they could at least have waited until after Remembrance Day on the 11th of November.) The ceremony involved a host of "stars" I have never heard of! Yesterday I saw workmen busily erecting the stalls for the Christmas Markets, which I have just googled and discovered that they will extend over an even greater area of the city centre than last year. These too will be officially opened by a media star I have never heard of. I am clearly getting out of touch. 

In our village a huge Christmas tree has been put up in the square. It is not yet decorated but no doubt that will soon be remedied. Running around the village I have spotted a house which already has a decorated tree in the living room window. It's not quite the middle of November and the Christmas madness is well under way! 

Our nine year old grandson has begun to make a series of requests, along the lines of, "Grandma, for Christmas will you buy me .... ? To date this has included several age-inappropriate, very violent computer games, all declined. The latest was the FIFA 2015 game for the PS3 or a jar of pickles. If those are genuine alternatives, I wonder how he will feel about receiving a jar of pickles! 

His older sister, 17, has been having a series of electronic-device catastrophes. My mother always said things go in threes. it seems to be the case here. First she dropped her kindle and, catching it mid fall, gripped it so tightly she cracked the screen. Although the kindle still works, she can't read it as the screen shows fractured patterns instead of words. Probably reparable! Then she dropped her iPhone down the loo. Not a good idea. The phone works ... most of the time but clearly has not been improved by going for a swim. 

The latest disaster was her laptop. Perched on the sofa with the laptop beside her, she jumped up to get something, tangled her feet in the wire and the laptop hit the floor. After that it only gave her error messages. Computer-doctor Granddad has taken it apart, examined the entrails and put it back together. The prognosis is not good. Despite several goes at disconnecting and reconnecting the hard drive, in the hope that it was just a loose connection, the error message persists. Phil tells me that on the back of the hard drive is a warning message: avoid jolting! Maybe the message should be somewhere more prominent. 

I suspect someone needs to put in a special message to Santa. Let's hope she has been a good girl this year! And can she survive without laptop until December 25th?

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Rituals of one kind and another.

I have recently informed friends on Facebook that I don't want to be LinkedIn. I don't need another social network. I have not ventured into the world of tweeting and twittering. My husband is even worse ( or should that be better?) as he is a Facebook refusenik. He simply doesn't want anything to do with it. Just as well, I suppose, as it takes him all his time to deal with the emails that come in. 

And now I've just read about someone employing a "social media manager" for a month. She can't keep up with her Facebook likes and comments, her tweets and her twitters and is experimenting with having an agency deal with it for her. I suppose that if you are a journalist you need to have a respectable number of "followers". It's a credibility thing apparently. But really, if you haven't the time to go through your Facebook stuff, does it matter? Surely it's better to be actually living your life and doing things than living a virtual life through the electronic media. Weird and strange! All part of modern magic and witchcraft. 

In my Italian conversation class we have been talking about Hallowe'en. Yes, I know it's been and gone but we had a week off for half term when Hallowe'en came along. Now, I am one of those who has gone on and on about Hallowe'en, at least in its modern "trick or treat" incarnation, being an American invention. A lot of the things we talked about and read about revealed that youngsters going round from house to house was a traditional part of activities at this time of year. Granted what they were doing was offering to pray for the souls of the dead but they were receiving sweets, fruits and occasionally money for it. 

It all goes back, of course, to pagan rituals. We had been asked to come prepared to talk about our own childhood memories of Hallowe'en. So I talked about "apple bobbing" at hotspot suppers and going around asking for a penny for the guy in the run up to bonfire night. A little investigation showed that the game of floating apples in a bucket of water and trying to get them out with your teeth was almost certainly introduced by the Romans as part of the celebration of the goddess Pomona, goddess of fruit trees and represented by ... wait for it ... an apple tree. It's all about fertility rites and stuff like that. 

And even the song sung by kids collecting (no, begging!!) pennies for the guy (We come a cob a coalin', come a coalin', come a coalin' We come a cob a coalin' on/(for) BonFire Night. ) is believed to have been part of old Mummers Plays before the Gunpowder Plot stuff along. 

So first we had pagan rituals, which the Romans combined with the worship of their many gods and goddesses. Then along came Christianity and overlaid it's celebrations on the pagan, Celtic, Roman stuff. And now we can put it all out into the world via social media. 

Is nothing new under the sun?