Sunday, 31 March 2013

Waiting rooms and waiting around.

In the last week I have spent a good deal of time hanging around in stations and airports. In the course of my grandparental duties (taking children to and collecting children from school), I pass frequently through Stalybridge railway station, where I also go once a month to a poetry group meeting. So in the last week, I was there on Monday, having collected the children, with the youngest grandchild protesting because there was not time for him to have a bacon sandwich in the station buffet. Then on Tuesday evening I was there for poetry and again on Thursday afternoon, meeting the eldest grandchild and waiting for my daughter to collect us so that we could go and celebrate the middle grandchild’s birthday. 

Stalybridge station buffet is a little gem: an old style pub with a number of separate rooms and a roaring fire in the main bar. It is decorated with old railway signs and photos of railway events of years past: a visit from the queen mother; the Diggle crash of 1923, mangled engine and overturned carriages. 

A sign on one corner warns of the perils of pickpockets and loose women. Why are those two lumped together? 

 In the evening they offer small sample glasses of various real ales so that enthusiasts can decide which they prefer. And the food is good too, not just the bacon sandwiches but a range of pies and desserts. The menu includes “smooth chocolate, fudge and dark ale cake”. Amazing! No wonder people go there for days out. On Thursday two old codgers, clearly regulars were reminiscing not just about visits to this old station but also about other stations they enjoy organising excursions to. 

Then yesterday we travelled to Vigo, involving the inevitable hanging around at Liverpool airport. Yes, RyanAir have reinstated their Liverpool to Oporto flights, making our travel much more straightforward. 

Having booked our flights for yesterday, we only later discovered that on a Saturday buses between Porto an Vigo run on a reduced schedule: two in the morning before we arrived and one at 8.45 pm (Portuguese time) in the evening, arriving at Vigo at about 11.30 pm (Spanish time). Consequently, we spent several hours reading our Kindles and sampling the delights of Porto airport. 

On arrival at the airport we decided on coffee and cakes. In Portuguese, airport Portuguese anyway, they call cakes “queques”, pronounced “cakes” as in English. Now, it is well known that the Portuguese have a special affinity with the English but such language acquisition seems a little extreme to me. However, two coffees and two “queques” for €6 seems to me to be much better value than you get in English airports. 
The cup of coffee in the photo is a “meia de leite”, basically a white coffee. The interesting thing is that this standard sized cup, about half the size of what the French call a “grand crème”, is described as “grande”. How nice to be able to get a decent sized cup of coffee (good coffee) without having to explain that you have no wish to drink half a litre at one sitting! 

For die-hard Starbucks-style-coffee aficionados there is also a Costa Coffee in the airport, transplanted direct from the UK by the looks of things, complete with flapjacks. Getting something more substantial to eat proved more difficult. Signs in the airport complex direct you to restaurants on the upper floor but I think that these are all beyond the security check-in gates, available for bona fide travellers only, not for hangers-about waiting for the elusive “bus Galiza”. In both cafes on the ground floor a range of sandwiches were available but nothing in the way of proper meals. So we settled once again for a “tosta mista”, a cheese and ham toastie with the toast mysteriously and messily buttered on the outside! Tasty enough but hardly constituting a meal. 

Spending the afternoon and early evening at the airport and arriving at our flat after midnight meant that we had no supplies in. This morning I managed to get bread and milk at the local “panadería” so breakfast was up to standard. 
But we have been “forced” to eat out for the main meal of the day. Life is hard!

Wednesday, 27 March 2013


I came across a programme on BBC Radio 4 about Flamenco music as protest. It’s available for another six days on BBC i player. Here’s a link but be aware it's not going to be there long. 

In the programme the writer Jason Webster, American born but educated in Europe and sounding totally British, starts off with a description of the day in May 2012 when a Flamenco flashmob staged a protest in a branch of Bankia in Seville. 

 I’ve not been able to find a video of that particular Flamenco flashmob but here’s a link to another one which took place in the Banco de Santander in Madrid. You can see the security guards at the bank trying, quite ineffectually, to push the protestors out through the doors of the bank. As a friend of mine would say, it was like herding cats; as soon as he got dancer close to the door he or she would whirl away in another direction. 

Back to Mr Webster on his programme, he and the Flamenco singer who sang in the bank talked about reactions in the branch of Bankia. Some people joined in clapping and “jaleando”, in other words shouting “olé” at appropriate moments. Older people though tended to be afraid and cowered against the wall. Bank employees were confused; after all they might lose their jobs! 

Part of the words of his song went like this: 

       Banquero, banquero, banquero, 
       tú tienes cartera, 
       yo tengo florero. 

More or less telling the banker that he may have a wallet but the singer has a pot of flowers and can still enjoy life; money is not everything! 

 The programme went on to talk about the history of Flamenco which has always had an element of protest although that has tended to get lost in the frilly frocks and the rhythmic stamping of the dances for tourists. 

At the start of the Spanish Civil War a Flamenco singer, Corruco de Algeciras, wrote songs in favour of the Republicans which are still remembered today. Ironically he was shot by Republicans during the Battle of the Ebro in 1938 because when his region was taken over by Franco’s Nationalists he was conscripted into the army and forced to fight on Franco’s side. 

Franco apparently liked Flamenco and used it and its songs to promote his brand of Spanish nationalism. The wild dance of the gipsy underclass was tamed for tourist consumption. But it seems the music never really lost its protest element and via the communication media it is coming into its own again in a new way. 

 The writer and presenter of the programme is married to a teacher of Flamenco dance. She ended the programme reading the work of the poet Francisco Moreno Galván, who told us: 

      un hombre sin trabajo / es un hombre sin destino, / que se le ha torcío el sino 

      a man without work / is a man without destiny / his fate has been twisted. 

Unfortunately, after making Spain his home for the last twenty years, Jason Webster has decided that he and his Spanish wife will have to leave the country, like so many people, because the unemployment situation is making it impossible for them to make a living there.

Monday, 25 March 2013

How do you see it?

Quite a long time ago, someone said to me that perceptions are everything; perceptions become reality. I can’t say I quite agree with that but I can see that if you state something often enough your way of seeing it might become an accepted reality. 

One of these perceptions is that there is such a thing as a national characteristic. Maybe there is. We all joke about national stereotypes. The place where you are brought up and the way you are educated must have an influence on your personality. But are we so obviously British or French or Spanish or whatever that if you took a slice through us you would find our country’s name printed like a seaside resort’s name in a stick of rock? I’m not totally convinced. 

These thoughts have been provoked by reading a short report about a French academic, Claudia Senik, a research fellow at the Paris School of Economics. She’s a clever lady, educated at the École Normale Supérieure and a professor at the Sorbonne – rather like being educated at Oxford or Cambridge and going on to be a professor there. Anyway, she maintains that the French are gloomy. What’s more, she believes it is all the fault of the education system. They don’t give pupils enough praise in school and they make them insecure apparently. 

But more than that she maintains that there is something in the culture that makes French people miserable. Albert Camus, philosopher, and Edith Piaf, singer of songs about broken hearts, are held up as examples of “archetypal Gallic gloom”. 

It also affects immigrants; the longer they live in France and become part of the society, the less happy they claim to be, maintains our clever lady. Someone suggested it might be the language that causes the gloom but French speakers in Switzerland and Canada are as happy as people from other countries. There you go. 

Now, when I was a teacher of French to A-Level I used to advise my students to improve their French accent by putting a kind of Gallic sneer in their voice. You know the kind of thing; you make sure the corners of your mouth are turned down and you speak as though you consider yourself superior to everyone. Maybe I need to revise that and advise turning the corners of the mouth downwards in misery and speaking in tones of gloom. 

And here’s another perception I’m questioning. As I was waiting for my coffee to heat up earlier this morning, I glanced at a section of yesterday’s paper, a travel pull-out on getting around in England, places to go, things to do. My eye was caught by an advertisement: “Liverpool: Adventure City”. I have no argument with that except that they include the Royal Birkdale Golf Course in there. Really? And Southport beach (which incidentally has the country’s oldest iron pier, a Grade II – listed landmark, something I learned from this advert). Really? And the Marine Lake, now called the Crosby Lakeside Adventure Centre. Really? Even the red squirrel reserve at Formby Point. Really? 

Are these places all really IN Liverpool? 

I grew up around these places. My school was next to the Royal Birkdale. The beach was one of my places to escape to on my bike at times. The Marine Lake was where we hung around talking when we had no money or no inspiration to go elsewhere. But they were all part of SOUTHPORT. Even the red squirrel reserve, not quite Southport was enough for us to consider it ours. (Perceptions again.) It was where my family made regular visits at all times of the year but especially every Boxing Day. 

Of course, I know that Southport became part of Merseyside, much to my mother’s horror and disgust but that doesn’t make it part of Liverpool. If my mother had not been cremated she would be spinning madly in her grave. As it is, I think I can hear the rustle of her ashes swirling wildly somewhere in protest!!!

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Change of plan

As a rule on a Sunday morning I get up and run the long way round into the village to buy the Sunday paper. We only ever buy newspapers on Saturday and Sunday. It takes just about all day to read them so during the rest of the week we scan headlines online and pick out bits to read. However on Saturday and Sunday we give ourselves a treat. Hence my habit of running into the village. 

In view of the arctic conditions outside and because I didn’t fancy breaking any bones, today I decided, like yesterday, to forego my run. Instead of running shoes, I put on my hiking boots and set off to walk my running route. And then I came to the point where the snowdrifts started. 

I persevered only a short distance further and stopped at the point where the snow went wall to wall. 

Backtracking, I opted for another route into the village. Same story. 

So I headed back down the road, intending to go past my house and into the village along the main roads. On my way I came across an elderly neighbour digging his car out. We reminisced about winters of the past. He commented on the advantage of this weather being the fact that you get to meet people you don’t normally see when you go everywhere by car. Yesterday, he informed me, he was talking to the lady from the end house. That would be me; I remember the conversation. So I set him right on that score, whereupon he expressed his surprise at how different ladies can look from one day to the next. Now, I was wearing the same bright red coat and the same brown woolly bobble hat as yesterday. I didn’t set him right on that score. He is 87 after all and is entitled to forget a few things. After all, he is still getting out and about, clearing the snow off his path and is generally pretty sharp. We can forgive him for forgetting he spoke to me yesterday and even for telling me the same stories twice over! 

Eventually I had to move to prevent my feet freezing to the spot and went on my way into the village. The pavement from our house to the crossroads and from the crossroads to the village centre alternated patches of deep slush and stretches of sheet ice. So when I came back I did my neighbourly duty and cleared a good bit of our patch of pavement and sprinkled it with a cocktail of ash and salt. 

This is serious weather; some people are having difficulty getting out of their houses. A friend of my daughter reports having to dig her way IN to her house on Friday evening. My poor little Christmas tree in its pot in the garden has been blown over and turned into a kind of snowy hedgehog.

What’s more, for the second time this winter I have had to cancel a dinner party this weekend because of snow. 

I wonder if it will happen again if I try to organise one in May!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Nice expressions.

So, they’ve chosen a new pope. I say “they” because it has nothing at all to do with me. Everyone is very excited because he’s an Argentinian, the first one ever. It must be the moment for first times as the old pope was the first ever to retire. 

Lots of people stood for hours and hours in the rain in St Peter’s Square in Rome waiting for white smoke to appear through the special chimney. I don’t remember people in the UK getting quite so excited about who was going to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. So it goes. 

 Listening to all the reporting about the conclave I picked up a bit of linguistic knowledge when the BBC reporter casually said that the cardinals were locked away “con clave”, with a key. Why had I never thought of that before? Probably because it’s not a word I use all the time. Interestingly, despite its etymology the Spanish word “cónclave” puts the stress on the first syllable, something that rather surprised me. 

Another little linguistic titbit I’ve come across today concerns the vocabulary of crashes. I was looking at reports of the bad weather in the north of Spain and found one about a lorry in difficulty in Galicia. In English we would say that a lorry “jack-knifed”. The Spanish report said, “un camión hizo tijera”, literally, “a lorry made scissors”. Different expressions but both connecting with sharp instruments. 

The weather has been causing some problems – and some nice pictures – in the interior of Galicia. 

Lugo had snow on its fine old Roman walls. 

Cars slithered all over the place and needed pushing. 

And the countryside just looked like Christmas cards once again. 

Even Santiago de Compostela got a sprinkling.
And there I was thinking that we should escape to Galicia to avoid the winter. 

Here in the northwest of England we seem to have got off lightly. In the past we have had lots of snow, more than most other places, but this year the south of England has suffered far more than we have. Even the Channel Islands have been snowed up this year. But we've had blue sky and sunshine interspersed with snowshowers, none of which has stuck for long.
The weather is seriously strange!

Monday, 11 March 2013

Spanish stuff, mostly

As I watch the snow blizzarding away outside my window, I think of things going on in Spain at this time of year. In Galicia they have been having demonstrations for the Día da Clase Obreira Galega, commemorating the death of two workers on the 10th of March 1972, killed during a protest in Bazán, in the Ferrol region. About 50 other workers were injured during the protest. It led to unions pushing for improved working conditions and then in 1997 the 10th of March was declared an official day of demonstrations. Despite bad weather yesterday, people turned out to march all over the place. 

On a completely different note, at the end of next week they begin the Fallas in Valencia. Each district of the city builds, usually with the help of a professional, amazing statues which often satirise topical events. At the end of the festival the majority of them are set alight and the city celebrates with music, dancing, eating and drinking and, of course, fireworks. I understand that this started as a way of using up odds and ends of materials in carpenters’ workshops – another work related event then! Now it’s a big tourist attraction. 

Not long after the Fallas comes Semana Santa with its related processions. I remember reading about rivalry between cities, such as between Málaga and Sevilla, to see who could have the best processions. 

Here in the UK we seem to be more concerned with the chocolate side of Easter. Outside Selfridges in central Manchester I came across this huge display of Easter eggs. 

The chocolate makers Lindt also put up an explanatory plaque about how this would raise money for Action for Children. I suspect that it might also raise money for Lindt but it made quite a nice cheerful display in the street. Apparently they did a similar display of reindeer at Christmas, again doing some charity work and incidentally encouraging people to buy their chocolate reindeer. 

Getting back to things Spanish, here’s a link to a display of flamenco dancing, a Flamenco flashmob at St Pancras International, organised by the Spanish Tourist Office in London to celebrate the 10th year anniversary of the Flamenco Festival at Sadler's Wells. I wonder if they chose St Pancras station because the arches are vaguely reminiscent of the cathedral / former mosque in Cordoba. Whatever the reason, it made a much more attractive disruption to travel than the one I came upon in Victoria Station, Manchester. Last time I was there they were filming a bit of Coronation Street there. Lots of people were crowded around watching it and I had to get special permission to go and look at the train timetables on the wall, along with a request not to disturb the recording and would I please go round the outside to get to my platform. Have I turned into someone who looks silly enough to walk through a very obvious film/TV recording session in operation? 

All this talk of Spain suggests that we are hankering to get back there. Well, yes, especially if winter continues to refuse to let go of the UK. However, plans are afoot. Ryanair is starting its flights from Liverpool to Porto again (Hurray!!) and we are off to Galicia once more at the end of the month.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013


Batman delivers a criminal to a police station in Bradford. Are superheroes real after all? 

This one didn’t keep his identity a secret for long. He revealed himself to be Stan Worby who had been watching a football match in fancy dress – why? – and his criminal was a friend of his who had decided to give himself up. Superheroes may be real but they’re not quite what they used to be. Good grief, Clark Kent managed to hide the fact that he was Superman for ages and ages. 

We in England are not quite the superheroes we thought we were anyway. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been shocked to find that the UK ranked 12th out of 19 countries of similar affluence in 2010 in terms of healthy life expectancy at birth, according to a detailed analysis from the Global Burden of Disease data collected by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) in Seattle. He can’t even blame it on his Labour Party predecessor either. 

It would seem that it’s not so much any failings on the part of the NHS but a general failure of UK lifestyle. We eat too much of all the wrong things. We have a boozy culture and we smoke too much. Consequently we can expect to live 68.6 years of healthy life. After that it’s all downhill: stroke, heart disease, Alzheimer’s and general decrepitude. I’d better make a start of really enjoying life in the years left to me. Bucket list time! 

Spain, on the other hand, is at the top of the list with 70.9 years of healthy life before the rot sets in. Italy came second with 70.2 years and Australia got the bronze medal with 70.1 years. Mind you, the difference is not really all that huge after all. 

You could put it down to the Mediterranean life style, I suppose, but that doesn’t account for the Aussies. Maybe it’s the outdoor life style. Spain still has its paseo and Italy the passeggiata. But Australia? Well, maybe it’s the barbie on the beach that swings it. I can quite believe it about the paseo and passeggiata, though. I’m sure that a relaxed stroll most days must help keep your system working properly. 

Then there’s the lunch hour. Many people in the UK just work through their lunch hour, which is usually a maximum of 45 minutes anyway. In Spain, by contrast, most people still either go home for lunch or go out to a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant, maybe only a small on with a cheap menú del día but still a meal in a restaurant, away from the work place. It’s the relaxing over food and enjoying your meal that makes the difference. 

That might all change soon however. There are moves afoot to bring Spain back into line with the rest of Europe and reduce the lunch hour. Will it make a difference? 

We seem to be doing better on one front though: the royal family. King Juan Carlos is recovering in hospital from his fourth operation in 10 months. Queen Elizabeth has just left hospital after her first admission in 10 years. The Borbón family appear to be staggering form crisis to crisis whereas the Windsors are on a high at the moment. 

Will things change in the near future? Not even Batman can tell us that.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Points of view

 For the last week I have run most mornings, often in fine crisp sunny weather – but rather cold. The weatherman assures me that it will turn to rain later this week so I must make the best of it. The cold had me thinking of the ladies I saw in their fur coats in Spain, complaining of the cold there, where I thought it was quite mild most days. It’s all down to where you start from. 

And then, because I neglected to turn the TV set off after the news the other night, I found myself watching a documentary about the effect the cold weather has been having on wildlife. However, it wasn’t really the main theme of the programme that caught my attention. It was the fact that during the programme they repeated a documentary made back in 1963 at the end of a very long cold spell in the “coldest winter since 1947”. 

Apparently the snow fell around Christmas time and lay for weeks. There was a brief thaw and then more came and lay again for weeks, more or less over the whole country. There were shots of snow not several inches but several feet deep. Whole chunks of the country were cut off and began to run out of food. People had to be rescued by helicopter from isolated country places. And we think we’ve had it bad this winter!!! Amazing!! 

The truly amazing thing is that, although I was a teenager back in 1963, I have no memory of that cold winter. Maybe Southport, where I grew up, just didn’t get the snow. It was, indeed still is, quite rare for it to snow there. Maybe it just passed me by. I suppose it may be from that winter that I have memories of walking along the beach and seeing the sea frozen; contrary to popular belief the sea does come in on Southport beach, especially in the winter. 

Another strange thing was seeing TV presenters I had always thought of as ancient. Indeed, I had seen them grow even more ancient until they became venerable old men of television. Now, from my older perspective, I was astounded at how very young these same presenters appeared. How strange life is! 

Other contrasts I have noted. 

In La Voz de Galicia I read a report about how the botellón (young, and sometimes not so very young, people gathering to drink and socialise outdoor where it is cheaper than in bars and clubs) on Riazor beach in La Coruña has become almost institutionalised. It seems that the police keep an eye on things but don’t intervene a great deal. In the article young people from other parts of Spain expressed their surprise. But they all agreed that the laws about botellón don’t work well. AS they said about the police, “si te quitan de un sitio, te vas para otro” – “if they remove you from one place you go elsewhere”. 

On the other side of the world, in the USA, I have read that there are states where it is hard to obtain alcohol at all on a Sunday, let alone drink it in a public place. So, in the country where you can acquire a gun without too much difficulty and where some states have even gone so far as to legalise recreational use of marihuana it is still against the law to buy alcohol on a Sunday. I wonder why it’s morally reprehensible buy the means to get drunk on the Sabbath but less so to possess the means to kill someone! 

Back in Spain, the unemployment figures have topped 5 million. Unemployment has gone up in almost all the autonomous regions, particularly in Andalucía and Madrid. And it’s in Andalucía that a movement called “Corralá Utopía” has taken off. With the slogan "Ni gente sin casa, ni casas sin gente" (No people without houses, no houses without people) this group has occupied blocks of flats, first of all in Sevilla but spreading to other parts of Andalucía such as Málaga. Respectable people who found themselves on the streets or sleeping in their cars have taken the law into their own hands. 

Desperate times calling for desperate measures!