Monday, 15 September 2014

The things people say.

An Italian friend of mine posted an article to Facebook, essentially a list of things you should know about Italian or things that Italians say and apparently believe. 

1) There is something called the colpo d’aria, and it can give you something called cervicale. 

2) You should never leave your house with a wet head. 

3) Having a cappuccino after dinner inhibits digestion. 

4) Sparkling water helps digestion. 

 5) A digestivo, like an amaro, grappa, or limoncello, really does help you digest. 

6) It’s dangerous to go in the water within three hours of eating, especially for kids. 

7) Putting urine on a sting, especially from a jellyfish, helps it heal. 

8) Air-conditioning makes you sick. 

Each one was examined in turn. Some were refuted. Some were accepted as having a grain of truth. What struck me was that most of them could also have been said by a good number of Spanish people I know and, for that matter, some French. 

I've mentioned number one before. The colpo d'aria is basically a draught and I know quite a number of people who suffer from "cervicales", plural in Spanish, as a result of sitting in draught. That's why even on sunny days you see women wearing scarves. It is, of course, conceivable that it's just a stiff neck with a fancy name! 

Similarly, number three. You would almost never find a Spaniard drinking cafe con leche after a meal. Only guiris do that. The Spanish and the Italians maintain that the dairy produce causes the problem. But it's all right to have arroz con leche (almost rice pudding), leche frita (another popular dessert - literally "fried milk" - no idea what it really is) or flan, all with dairy produce in!!! 

On the coffee question, a French friend of mine long ago told me that you should never drink more than two cups of coffee a day and especially not after 6 in the evening. Or tea for that matter. She said that she once did so and her stomach turned inside out!!! Is that possible? 

Some of them would also have been said on a regular basis by my mother forty years ago, especially numbers two and six. How our ideas have changed since then. 

As for number seven, well!? There was an episode of "Friends", years go, where one of the girls had to wee on another's leg because of a jelly fish sting. 

So that one must be true!!!

Friday, 12 September 2014

Plus ça change!

In between getting grandchildren organised for school - bags packed, homework done and in bags, lunch or snack sorted - driving grandchildren here and there, feeding grandchildren, walking the puppy, making sure the puppy is fed and watered and that someone has taken him outside to do what puppies need to do, I have snatched the odd moment to read bits of the newspaper. 

That is how I came across the headline "GCSE changes may cut top grades". My heart sank. They want to tinker with the system again. There is this desperate terror that too many pupils are achieving the A* grade. Well, I've thought that for a while but if you set up league tables and judge teachers on the exam results of their pupils, they will usually find a way of teaching TO the exam, improving exam techniques and one way or another pushing up the percentage of top grades in their classes. 

The other thing is that there is a lot of concern about our place in the PISA - Programme for International Student Assessment - ratings. We don't do very well. I wonder if instituting a grading system which they consider compatible with the PISA systems will improve our students performance. Anyway, they want to institute a new grading system: 1 to 9 instead of A* to G. 

At first I thought they were reverting to the grading system that was around when I did O- levels, more years ago than I care to confess to. But that's not quite the case. This time 1 will be the lowest grade possible and 9 the highest, contrary to most other grading systems I have come across, except possibly music exams for playing an instrument. 

Either way, it's a different way of grading to what is in place at the moment. And it will not be possible to award the very top grade to as high a percentage of students as goes on at the moment with A* grades. So the emphasis has changed from getting as many high grades as possible to demonstrating that we have a strict and realistic assessment programme in place. Wasn't that what they really wanted to have already. I suspect we are seeing a lot of political manoeuvring and career tweaking. 

It's bad enough when you have work out the approximate equivalent grades from a previous system with the ones from an old system. It's got some of that "comparing chalk with cheese" aspect about it. However, this new grading system will exist side by side with the old one for a while. Only Maths, English Language and English Literature will change initially, although the rest will follow at a later date. So some students will have two different types of grades on their certificates. I feel sorry for the employers who will have to make head or tail of the grades and for the teachers who will have to deal with administering the system and explaining to parents why little Billy isn't getting the top grade. But most all I feel sorry for the poor kids who are being used as guinea pigs once more in this ongoing educational politicking!! 

Rant over! I've got a puppy to walk.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

A gypsy life. Oh, and a dog's life!

The daughter has swanned off to Italy. Her fiancé's cousin is getting married there. This is what you do nowadays apparently: you go off and get married in a foreign country. Everyone wants to be Brad and Angelina. Unfortunately not everyone has a home in the south of France in which to get married. So you have to go off to Lake Garda or somewhere similar. And your guests leave the children with the grandparents! 

So yesterday I went round to the daughter's house to collect her car for my use while she is away. (After all, I will be driving her kids around.) I got there to find that she and the fiancé were not packed. Truly this is last-minute-ism carried to an extreme. What is more, this is seriously not my daughter. She usually resembles me much more than this. In other words, she has usually made a list of what she needs to pack and has packed it the night before. Neither of us is not like those who are packed a week in advance but, unlike her father who would happily pack just immediately before departure, she generally is better organised than this! Madness has clearly set in! 

The next bit of evidence of unpreparedness was her asking me to look up times of trains to the airport!!!! Surely this should have been done days ago! We found one, we got to the station on time (having completed the packing) and I was on the point of setting off to go about my business. I had a list of things I was going to accomplish while I had the car. Just as I pulled out of the parking lot, the daughter and the fiancé reappeared, all in a fluster. The train had been cancelled!!!! Why did the website not show this? Was it a last minute cancellation? Why was it cancelled anyway? I suspect staffing problems. On more than one occasion, I have had trains cancelled in this part of the country because they did not have a driver or a guard available to work that train. And they say there is an unemployment problem?! My eye!! 

Outcome? A trip to Manchester airport. Not on my schedule but there it was. And so, they were off. 

And for the next few days I will be living a gypsy life, to-ing and fro-ing between houses. No doubt you have a question: Why have I not moved the grandchildren lock, stock and barrel to my house? Well, thereby hangs a tale and a tail. 

There's the independence factor. Grandchild number two has just started secondary school and is walking to and from school every day with a friend. We would rather not disrupt this newfound self-reliance. But the major (and recently added) complication is the puppy dog. 

Ever since the faithful boxer dog became terminally ill and had to be put down about a year ago, the children have pestered for a replacement hound. The excuse for not doing so has always been the unfairness of leaving a small dog on his own in the house while the adults were at work and the children in school. An excellent bit of reasoning in my view. 

Then, when the summer holidays started the daughter, in a fit of madness as far as I can tell (there's the madness again), went out and purchased a puppy: small, scruffy-looking, wiry haired, some kind of terrier crossed with something else, cute and funny but still A PUPPY! 

The children were delighted. Grandchild number two declared, somewhat over-dramatically that the black hole in her heart left by the demise of the faithful boxer dog had finally been filled!!!! 

And all summer long the puppy has been used to lots of people being around him all day long, making a fuss. For various reasons of the older granddaughter's college timetable and the fiancé's leave from work this continued even after term started again. The puppy is at the stage when he needs to have a bit of exercise, have a sleep, have a play, maybe have some more exercise and so on. Not to mention, of course, food and water. 

Not wishing to transfer all the puppy equipment to our house, this blogger finds herself involved in puppy care, a style of puppy care that involves going over to the daughter's house mid-afternoon to ensure that the puppy is not lonely, in need of a wee, a drink, a bit of love, etc. And so I go to and fro, sleeping at the daughter's house but returning to mine during the day, well most of the day, and for meals and such. (I prefer my own kitchen! I hope readers don't have a problem with this!) 

Now, I would never harm or hurt a small creature like this but I am seriously not a doggy person. I am not given to picking them up and hugging them, as the grandchildren do all the time. Neither am I a fan of kissing small dogs and letting them lick me, especially on or near my face. Above all, I do not appreciate picking up doggy-poo. So I am faced with a dilemma. 

On the one hand I am severely critical of those who allow their dogs to do their business all over the place and just walk away from it. On the other, picking up said business, albeit with my hand in a plastic poo-sack, is something I find quite repulsive. Up to now, I have managed to avoid the problem. Yes, I have walked the puppy but he has not needed cleaning up after when I have been alone. If I am accompanied by grandchildren they are happy to be poo-collectors for me. 

So far so good. But tomorrow is another day! And so is Saturday!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Social mobility, changes, a fortunate generation and so on.

So, the latest polls suggest that Scotland might vote FOR independence after all. This is causing lots of discussion about border controls and last minute promises of extra benefits and autonomy if they stay in the United Kingdom. 

Another consequence seems to have been the announcement of a Royal Pregnancy. Yes, I know they are saying that the announcement has been made early because poor Kate has horrid extreme-morning-sickness and has had to miss some royal engagements. However, some analysts appear to think that it is because this amazingly wonderful news just might make the Scots want to stay in Great Britain after all. Why? Does a royal birth make such a difference? Will this baby become the "Prince or Princess of Scotland"? 

Anyway, Guillermo and Catalina, as the Spanish insist on calling them, are over the moon to announce that baby number two is on the way. Spanish scandal mags have been saying so for weeks. Do they have access to details of the life royal that the rest of us don't? Are they strangely clairvoyant? Or has someone simply said that baby George is now over a year old and it's about time they made another sprog (an heir and a spare as they say, well, as I am told they say) and suggestion has gone to rumour which has gone to press coverage? 

Does it really matter, in the broader scheme of things? Probably not! Not to those of us born in the 1940s at least. 

The Institute of Fiscal Studies have been looking at what we have as pensions and have discovered that most retirees from that birth group "have never had it so good .... the vast majority of couples born in the 1940s are maintaining their former living standards into retirement – and nearly a half enjoy a greater income in retirement than average real earnings." 

Bearing in mind how low some "real earnings" are, that average may not be so very high. But once again I have been reminded that we are the fortunate generation who did not have to pay university fees, had jobs to look forward to when we graduated and had proper pension schemes. 

The Institute of Fiscal studies goes on to say: "Younger workers are now being offered less generous “defined contribution” pension plans into which employers tend to pay less money and which are dependent on stock market returns. They are also having to save large deposits to pay for a home and take on mortgages on multiples of income far higher than previous generations." 

On that last point, I would like to point out that when we were entering the housing market we had to save at least twice our annual salary to have the necessary deposit to put down on a house, which was pretty difficult even then. I know that house prices have gone up in a ridiculous fashion, out of all proportion to salary increases but ... it wasn't all easy peasy for us either. However, with hindsight I think we were very fortunate that no-one was prepared to offer mortgages above and beyond the value of the property. You had to work very hard to get into negative equity in those good old days. 

While we're in looking-back mode, let's mention university, which has already come up once in this blogpost. This morning I read that the UK has more graduates than ever but without the skills and social mobility to match. It seems that only a quarter of the country's graduates reach the highest levels in literacy and numeracy, well below other top-performing nations. 

Am I surprised? Not really. Once you start to say that everyone can go to university - ok, not everyone but the aim was for 50% I believe - then there's bound to be a bit of dilution of skills amongst those going to university, especially when you take into account some of the degrees on offer. Call me snobbish if you will but "Events Management" is not a degree subject on a par with Chemistry or Modern Languages. 

Add to that the increasing tendency for students to stay at home while they study for their degree, going to the university closest to home and you have another factor in the lack of social mobility. Going away from home to study, living independently, meeting people from a whole range of different walks of life all added to the likelihood that you would try something new and different in life. If university is an extension of sixth form college you are probably going to look for work close to home as well, even if it's not quite what you might truly aspire to. 

Just think, if a certain young lady, now pregnant for the second time, had not gone away to university she would never have had the chance to be the future queen of England. There's social mobility for you!

Monday, 8 September 2014

A bit of a moan.

Up at the crack of dawn. Mist all around, turning into a generally cloudy start to the day. A chilly morning to be out of the pavement at 8 in the morning meeting a local councillor. 

For longer than I care to remember there have been plans to build houses on a patch of land behind our road, not directly behind our house but just a little further up. Building started and stopped and started again. Now, finally, houses are not only completed, some of them, but also sold, some of them, and ready for the first occupants to move in. The access road is a few houses up the main road from our house. And that is part of the problem. 

Because that little side road is now going to give access to some fifty houses, instead of the three it presently serves, there is going to be a whole lot more traffic in and out. Consequently we returned home to find a letter explaining that parking outside our house and our neighbours' houses, was about to disappear, improving visibility for drivers coming out of the side road. Not only that but the promised allocated parking next to the new houses that are being built didn't seem to be materialising. Where would residents of our row of houses be able to park? Parking space is already at a premium around here. Cue for a bit of protest action. 

One of the neighbours contacted a local councillor, (local not only in the sense that she represents us on the town council but also in that she lives locally) and organised a meeting with her. Meanwhile. Phil did some research and found some of the original letters we had all received about the project right back at the start. Armed with statements about the promised parking places, all the neighbours were up first thing this morning to witness the local councillor inspecting things and talking to the building contractor. Will we get a satisfactory outcome? We will all wait and see. 

There's nothing like a little protest to start the week off properly. 

I listened to one of the neighbours commenting to the effect that permits to do various things had probably been bought. "It all comes down to money!" he said pessimistically. And I found myself thinking of all those times in Spain when questions of corruption have come up and Spanish friends have turned to us and said that, of course, that sort of thing couldn't possibly happen in the United Kingdom. Oh, no? Maybe less frequently and less obviously than in Spain but it almost certainly still goes on.

So here we are, back in the swing of things. The weather also swings, between fine and sunny one day and grey and gloomy the next. The big difference is the temperature. The evenings are especially cool and we find ourselves turning the heating on. Have we gone soft by spending time in Spain? 

And time is marching on. Signs of autumn are around. Leaves are turning red and brown and beginning to fall. Rose hips abound. 

 In one of the local Co-op shops they are already selling chocolate Santas and mince pies!! Mince pies! I ask you! Just what is going on? You'd think they could at least get Hallowe'en out of the way first! Surely no-one is buying mince pies and putting them away in the freezer for Christmas already. Pretty soon there will be mince pies all year round as there already seem to be hot cross buns all year round. What has happened to tradition? 

Seasonal food should only be available in season! I cannot imagine Spanish bakers producing "huevos de santos" (literally "saints' bones", a weird piece of confectionary consisting of marzipan "finger bones" with contrasting coloured "marrow") at any other time than in the run up to All Saints Day. Or indeed "orejas" (kind of batter fritters in the shape of huge ears - hence the name) except at "carnaval" time. 

Time for another protest, methinks!

Friday, 5 September 2014

Going back to Blighty!

Yesterday we flew back to the UK, from Oporto to Liverpool. Oporto airport was busy. That is an understatement. The queue to go through security was huge. It wound through at least three layers of zigzags before you finally got to where you put all your stuff in a tray and someone in uniform looks rudely and sneeringly at your feet to remind you to take your shoes off as well. You never know, you just might be hiding something in those open- toed sandals!!!! 

None of the three airports in Galicia is as busy as that, I am sure. It's no wonder Oporto has a huge mural on the ground floor declaring itself to be the airport of all Galicians!! Unfortunately Galicia has been so slow in getting its act together that it has seriously missed the aeroplane!!! 

We left a very cloudy Vigo behind us, fairly sure that the weather forecast for Oporto was much the same. However, the further we went into Portugal the better the weather became By the time we reached Sà Carneiro airport the sky was pretty well all-over blue again. This was a problem as it was by now late afternoon / early evening and the waiting area is west facing. It was extremely difficult to find shade anywhere. But we survived. As you do. 

I gather that the weather must have improved in Vigo as well because my friend Craig posted an excellent picture of the sun going down behind the Islas Cíes. 

For this morning I didn't set an alarm. As we had arrived home at around 1.30 in the early morning, I decided to just sleep and see what time I woke. So at 8.30, I was wide awake and ready for the day. Which turned out to be fine and sunny. It's only as we have moved into late afternoon that the clouds have appeared. 

And there seem to be flowers everywhere, brightly-coloured ones. 

It was very nice of them to lay on sunshine and flowers to welcome us back!

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Cultural differences.

I have just come back from a drink with my young friend Craig, an ex-pupil who has been working here and there around Europe since he graduated from university. We swapped stories of life in Spain and elsewhere, in his case bemoaning the difficulty of getting employment at embassies or airports here. Oddly enough the jobs, which might benefit from the services of a bilingual Brit, appear to be reserved for Spaniards who know someone already working there. What a surprise! We agreed on the wonders of the menú del día and how great it is to be able to eat well for under €10, usually with a drink thrown in. 

He's a little disappointed with the weather which managed to change in time for his arrival. Having come from Barcelona, where he works at present, he was hoping to enjoy Galician beaches and possibly show some of his English friends the Islas Cíes and it's not working. Not that it's cold, just that the sunshine seems to have gone walkabout. 

I watched that happen yesterday. We went out to meet a friend for lunch. The sky was blue. The sun was shining nicely. When we left Vigo centre in the late afternoon the sun was still shining splendidly but from the site of the old railway station (eventually to be the site of the new AVE station) we could see a huge bank of cloud that had made its way up the ría and enveloped all the are around our block of flats in grey dampness. That was it for the day! 

We had met a friend for lunch, as I said. I had a mixed salad followed by chipirones encebollados - baby squid with caramelised onions - absolutely delicious. Phil had been undecided and had got as far a choosing to share my salad and order a portion of calamares. If he was still hungry, he would order more later. Just as well, for my chipirones encebollados dish was so enormous that you could have fed a whole family. So I shared it around. Splendid stuff. 

Later I read an article about how the British are receptive to the cuisines of other countries. We are happy to borrow wholesale from places all around the world. This is perhaps why there is no real famous British cuisine. We're too busy enjoying everyone else's. 

The article went on, however, to say that foreigners are often appalled with what we do to their cuisine and quoted the blog Guirilandia by the Spaniard Jorge Ruiz, which has a section devoted to "atrocities committed under the name of Spanish food". He particularly objects to the fact that many people think that simply adding chorizo to a recipe makes it Spanish, even adding it to dishes such as paella which have nothing to do with chorizo whatsoever. 

 He reserves special disgust for paella "ready meals" sold by supermarkets in the UK and especially the production of "paella sandwiches", fortunately just a limited edition. Mind you, I suppose a nation that eats chip butties would see nothing wrong in making sandwiches from paella or lasagne, another offence against cookery which has been perpetuated. oddly, however, i have not heard of sweet and sour chicken sandwiches! 

Describing restaurants that make "paella" with Chinese style rice and simply throwing in a mix of vegetables, shellfish, cooked ham, chorizo and pepper, Jorge Ruiz is horrified. He comments, "El responsable de semejante afrenta debería ser fusilado, o peor aún, obligado a comerse toda la paellera." (The person responsible for such an affront should be shot, or even worse, made to eat the whole paella-panful.) 

Neither is he impressed with what British restaurants can do to the Spanish "tortilla". Personally, I find it hard to understand how you can mess up a Spanish potato and onion omelette. Some people do insist on adding odd ingredients or doing strange things to the potatoes though. I pass my recipe and instructions around. In my way I am doing my culinary bit to educate the British. 

The only thing I can truly say in our defence is that Mr Ruiz should investigate the atrocities that are served up as cups of tea in Spain. It may not be quite so enormous a problem but the fact remains that the Spanish, like the French, have no idea how to make a good cup of tea!