Monday, 29 June 2015

Things fall apart. But not all things.

Apparently about 30% of the Great Wall of China has disappeared. Natural wear and tear is part of it. After all, that wall has been there a long time - they started building it in the third century BC - and for a good deal of the time it has stood there people weren't really aware of the need to preserve monuments. And then people have been more than just careless; some people have stolen bricks to build houses. I suppose that has always happened to ancient constructions. And in more recent times, visitors have been stealing stones as souvenirs. Not quite the same as picking up a few sea shells when you go on holiday! And we know places that won't allow that! 

And Greece is seriously heading for meltdown. Imagine none of the hole-in-the-wall cash machines in your town, no, your whole country, just not working! What do you do when you have spent up the cash in your pocket. Presumably the credit card system doesn't work properly either, 

Ancient civilisations are falling apart! 

It's a good job poolside life is still carrying on in a stable fashion here in Pontevedra, or rather, Poio, where we are now spending a couple of nights at our friend Colin's house. Golden girls are working in getting there tan even more evenly golden, children are leaping into the water and playing a kind of watery blind-man's buff where one child closes his eyes and calls out, "Marco", to which the others respond, "Polo" and the first has to try to catch them, and grandfathers are still teaching the little kids to swim. 

 This after Phil's eventual success at the Sanxenxo tournament. After working manfully to defeat the oldest player in the tournament, a grand old man of about 85, in the last round, Phil scored enough to put him in line for a prize. Not just any bold veteran's prize, which he has won before now, but the prize for the "Superveterano", winning him not only a cash prize (a contribution to our hotel bill) but also a boat. 

Okay, it's only a pot boat but it is really quite charming, undoubtedly the best-looking trophy he has ever won.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Endings. Words. Clothes.

So, another Sanxenxo chess tournament draws to a close. We have eaten the "cena especial" and thoroughly enjoyed it. We have made a few new friends and been reunited with some old ones. Phil has masochistically sweated over the chessboard while I have swum in leisurely fashion up and down the pool and walked, Spanish fashion, up and down the tideline on the beach. This morning I paid the bill while Phil played his last game, fortified with the occasional cafe cortado, transported by yours truly to the playing area. 

Here are some odd words I have culled from items in the local papers. El disyoquei - this is the Spanish for disc jockey. The word has been hispanified in the good traditional way, missing sounds out and adjusting others to match the Spanish tongue, not to mention Spanish spelling. Disyoquei is the profession of Calvin Harris, boyfriend of the singer Taylor Swift. The couple are known collectively as Tayvin. Kanye West and Kin Kardashian are known as Kimye. This might seem like a new trend but decades ago Phil and I were known to friends as Phil'n'Anth. We never knew we were trend setters way back then. 

Yesterday the much talked about wedding took place in the hotel. Paula and Daniel (perhaps now known collectively as Pauda - you never know) were married with much cheering and shouting. This was the noisiest wedding I have ever heard but perhaps this is normal for Spain. Later in the afternoon there was also a baptism party for a little Rodrigo, also a very noisy affair and which was still going strong at 11.30 when we returned from eating out with one of our new friends. 

Another word I found is "el bum" - the boom, as in, "El bum de los pazos y las fincas entre los novios comenzó en torno al 2008". Not so much a "boom" as a "trend" or "fashion" - the fashion for getting married in stately homes began around 2008. 

The Spanish, and he French for that matter, have long had the habit of inventing would-be English words ending in "ing". In some cases they are novel uses of a word that does actually exist: "el camping" for a camp sight and "el parking" for a car park are the oldest examples I can remember. Then came "el footing" for jogging, a silly word if ever there was one. 

Now I have come across "el scrapbooking", which seems to mean anything from making your own greeting cards to the kind of craft projects where you make cardboard holders for letters or fancy photo frames with a personalised look. All have something to do with cutting and sticking but not a lot to do with scrapbooks. Holiday-related stuff gives us "el vacacioning" and "el crucering", the latter based on the word "crucero" which means cruise. As far as I am concerned these all beat the false Spanish of "no problemo" used by loads of English people, probably originating in some cartoon series on the television. Oddly enough, I heard a small Spanish girl say it down by the pool the other day. Drives me mad! 

Second hand clothes feature in the news as well. This comes from one of those society magazines that abound in hairdressing salons and on the bar in the cafeteria here in the Hotel Carlos I Silgar. Somewhere in the USA they are auctioning, among other things, the dress worn by Marilyn Monroe in her last film and a Versace dress specially designed for Princes Diana. The former is expected to fetch between $300,000 and $500,000 and the latter between $60,000 and $80,000. Hollywood royalty trumps British royalty! 

But in the end, they are still second hand clothes.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

This Sporting Life. Beach football.

I am sure it is great fun to play. You scrabble together enough people to make up two five-a-side teams, mark out a pitch in the sand and away you go. At least that's what I thought happened. And then the other night, there it was on the screen of the TV in the cafe where we were having a light supper. International beach football. Spain versus Italy. Yes, they still played barefoot on the sand but there were tiers of seats for spectators and it all looked very professional. Even the rolling around on the sand in agony when they didn't enjoy being tackled looked authentic. 

I must say, I was surprised. What's next? Beach ping pong? You know what I mean, you buy a couple of bats that look an awful lot like table tennis bats, and a brightly coloured ball. As there is no table to bounce off, you have to keep the ball in the air. They could organise leagues in two types of beach ping pong: beach ping pong on the sand and beach ping pong in the water. It might be hard to make the spectators' seating around the latter but with a bit of ingenuity, it could be done. 

Then there is sandcastle building. I am sure that has been done in individual seaside resorts but, as far as I know, never on a national scale, let alone international. For this, and for beach ping pong, you might need to work out some rules and regulations but you can always find someone who enjoys that kind of administrative task. 

Perhaps I should put together a proposal (is that the right term?) and tout it around the TV channels. After all, they televise darts and snooker! 

By coincidence, today I came across something called "calcio storico ", Italian for "historic football". It was invented in 16th century Florence and involves two teams of 27 people, having a free-for-all to gain possession of a ball and posting it through a very small goal. The original name meant something like "Florentine kicking game". The Italian word for football, "calcio" derives from this. "Calcio storico" has rules, of sorts. Sucker-punches and kicks to the head are prohibited but headbutting, punching, elbowing, and choking are all allowed. Here is a link to some photos of the game in action.

It would not be the only brutal sport to go on, even now in the 21st century. Just the other day someone died when a bull managed to gore one of his tormentors. It was one of those small town Spain fiestas. A bull is released into a small square, People enter the improvised ring and harass the bull. When he is provoked to charge, they run and hide behind barriers. This time the bull was very determined and the barrier was too flimsy. The bull got his own back! 

I am not quite convinced this is really the 21st century!

Friday, 26 June 2015

Things seen and lost from the terraza. Invitations.

Years ago, when "Friends" was still at the height of its popularity as a TV series, there was one episode where the very juvenile young adults gathered to look excitedly through a window into the flat opposite. One of then had discovered that the bloke who lived there tended to walk around without any clothes, disregarding uncurtained windows. They referred to him as the "ugly naked guy", largely because he was rather plump, not a perfectly toned, sun kissed god of a man. (I have read that the latest fashion is not for toned and tightly-muscled but for a slightly plump man with just a hint of beer belly. I so hate being told what is the ideal man!) 

I was reminded of this episode of "Friends" as I sat on our terraza this morning and, chancing to look up, saw a large, naked male backside in a window opposite. The owner of the aforementioned backside must not have realised how close to the window he had strayed nor how visible he was. One should always be careful about displaying one's charms in windows. This is not Amsterdam, after all. 

That was not only terraza incident this morning. Some time later I heard an expletive. A chessplayer of our acquaintance was looking down from a balcony round the corner and one floor up from our terraza. On enquiring, I discovered he had hung a towel and a pair is swimming shorts on the balcony rail and they had disappeared. The obvious answer was that they had fallen but he could see no sign of them below. I saw him at the pool later and had been able to reclaim them, so all was well. Otherwise I might have thought they had gone the way of my towel and Phil's cushion. 

Yesterday, at lunchtime, we arrived at the dining room to find the door closed. This was a short while after the usual time. Other people were also waiting. Eventually word filtered through that we had all been moved to another dining room on the lower floor. A notice to that effect would have been useful. It turns out that they were preparing the room for a wedding party. As the room still looks as though it is being prepared, I do not know whether the wedding has taken place or not. If it has, then they have been a very quiet bunch of wedding guests. We have heard no music, no sound at all in fact, and I have not seen hide nor hair of a bride! Another mysterious disappearance! 

Tonight we shall eat "arroz con bogavante", a local speciality dish with rice and lobster. It's the special chess tournament supper event. We feel privileged to be invited. Not everyone in the tournament gets to go. Perhaps you have to be staying at the event hotel. Perhaps you need to have got to know the organisers quite well, which we have over the years. Anyway we look forward to this event every year and had begun to wonder if it was cancelled or if, even worse, we were not among those invited! Shock! Horror! 

But invitations were issued over lunch yesterday, along with free passes for those accompanying chessplayers, but not the players themselves, for a free session in the "piscina dinámica" (whatever a dynamic pool is!!!) and for the "sillones relax (again, whatever, exactly, a relaxation armchair is). 

Hmm, they do head massages here, I wonder if I could swop those free sessions for a free head massage!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Stuff to do to improve your complexion!

Still on the subject of traditions connected with Saint John and the midsummer festivities, here's a little something. A friend of mine wrote yesterday on Facebook, "La nuit de la Saint-Jean, il est costume de cueillir des plantes du jardin et de les laisser toute la nuit dans de l'eau au frais." Which means that it is customary on the eve of St John to pick certain plants from the garden and leave them overnight in water in a cool place. My friend also explained the next step which is to get up at dawn and wash your face in the water the plants have stood in overnight. It's supposed to be really good for your complexion. 

I was staying with a friend In A Coruña one year at this time and she offered to wake me early so that I could wash my face in the flower water she had collected. I declined. Somehow I think my complexion benefitted more from a good night's sleep than from being washed in water from a flower vase! I wasn't quite so rude as that when I turned down her offer, I hasten to say. 

Getting back to my friend who posted on Facebook, the automatic translator wrote this, "The night of the Saint-Jean, it is customary to gather plants of the garden and let them all night in water at the expense." Oh, the joy of automatic translators! The sentence begins reasonably well, perhaps a little stilted but at least comprehensible. It starts to go wrong when it selects "let" instead of "leave" as a translation for "laisser". Both English words are correct but you have to use them according to the context. Then it goes rapidly downhill into translationese gobbledegook. In French, "au frais" means "in the cool" or "in a cool place". "Les frais" means the costs or the expense. "Les frais du voyage", for example, would be "the cost of the journey" or "travel expenses". 

Hence the weird, nonsense end of sentence: "let them all night in water at the expense". 

The moral of the story is never to trust automatic translators. These computer programmes are fine for individual words. In fact the best of them will even give you examples which put those individual words into context. What they can't deal with are whole sentences. Even less, whole paragraphs. So far, human beats computer hands down in the area. It will undoubtedly change! 

Here is a list of the plants/herbs/flowers you should stand overnight in water on the eve of St John: 

Romero.     Rosemary.
Espliego.    Lavender.
Tomillo.     Thyme.
Lavanda.    Lavender 
Melisa.       Lemon balm.
Helecho.    Fern.
Rosas .       Roses.

Notice that there are two Spanish words for lavender. Now, I always thought that lavender was just lavender but it would seem that I was wrong. I have no idea what the difference is between "espliego" and "lavanda" but I expect horticultural experts would know. Oh, yes, and witches. Because there is a little bit of witchcraft in here as well. You have to wash your face in the smelly water at dawn. Goodness knows what happens if you do it at the wrong time. Maybe you turn into a toad or something. 

Other people, frequently famous people, also do odd things with their faces. Rachel Cook, a food writer, was writing about honey, in particular about specialist honey recommended by food-faddy "celebrities". There is a honey called Manuka, apparently. Rachel Cook expresses her loathing for any kind of foodstuff that comes trailing celebrity fans. In this case, Gwyneth Paltrow is a great believer in manuka and maintains it has a large number of good qualities. And Scarlett Johansson, someone I thought of until now as quite a sensible actress, rubs it into her face – here’s the science bit – to “pull out the impurities”. Really! I know honey is good for a body but I understood that to be from eating it, not rubbing it into your skin! 

Wikipedia says, 

"Mānuka honey is a monofloral honey produced in New Zealand and Australia from the nectar of the mānuka tree. The honey is commonly sold as an alternative medicine. While a component found in Manuka honey has demonstrated antibacterial properties in vitro, there is no conclusive evidence of benefit in medical use and no evidence that the whole honey has any benefit." 

According to Rachel Cook a jar of Manuka honey could cost you £33.95. Maybe that's why celebrities favour it: the exclusive nature! What's more, Ms. Cook is not impressed by the taste: "its bitter taste has always seemed to me to be the very opposite of what honey should be, which is to say sweet and comforting." 

I suppose someone has to make money out of alternative remedies to stuff. Florists here in Galicia were selling bunches of "hierbas de San Juan" but I don't think they see charging silly prices for them.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bonfires, ice cream and disappearing stuff.

At midnight last night, or thereabouts, we could hear fireworks going off but we could see nothing at all from our hotel balcony. It was the "Noche de San Juan", the eve of the feast day of Saint John, John the Baptist I think. On the night of the 23rd of June in Spain and Portugal and indeed in all sorts of places all over the world, including Norway and Denmark, bonfires are lit. According to Wikipedia this is a Christian, but also pagan, festival. Well, of course, celebrating the summer solstice and incorporating it into the Christian calendar. That sort of thing happened a lot. 

Here the tradition is that you should jump over the bonfire as it dies down. The more times you manage to leap over it, the more good fortune you will have. Some say it also cements your relationship with your boyfriend/girlfriend. The local newspaper yesterday had information about where to go to see a good San Juan bonfire. It said A Coruña's Riazor beach is one of the best places. I can vouch for that. The year I saw it, the beach was full of bonfires, all rather too close to each other for my liking. My British awareness of health and safety issues was coming to the fore. But the sight was quite spectacular. 

During the day people carried stuff down to the beach to build their bonfires. There were police at the access points, preventing people from getting rid of their old sofas and other dangerously toxic rubbish. In the places that allow bonfires on the beach, they try to control what goes onto the fires. 

Many places don't allow bonfires on the beach. We asked at the restaurant where we ate last night if there was one near here. Sanxenxo's Silgar beach bans fires; it's too close to the town centre, apparently. That does not appear to affect things in A Coruña though. But they make a very big thing about it there, with a kind of "statue", similar to the "fallas" of Valencia, usually depicting something satirical about the local council. They set fire to it with great ceremony at midnight. 

The nearest one our waitress knew about was in Poio, rather too far for a late evening stroll. This morning, however, we found the remains of a fair-sized bonfire in a little square at the junction of several backstreets. (We tend to find all the back ways in places we visit.) it was still smouldering away nicely. I was reminded of the morning after Bonfire Night in my childhood, when we would go out into the garden to see if we could coax the fire back into life and extend the fun a little longer. The attraction of fire must be universal. 

Even if I were daft enough to leap over any bonfire, I would not have liked to leap over the bonfire whose remains we found, a good six feet across, practically the long jump as far as I am concerned. In yesterday's paper there was a little section on advice about burns. Along with the usual stuff about not bursting blisters and not applying cream there was this little item: "First of all, if you are jumping bonfires, always wear cotton clothing, never synthetics". Good advice; synthetic fabrics tend to melt into the skin, aggravating the burn. My advice, however, would be much simpler: DON'T JUMP OVER BONFIRES!!!! 

In some parts of Italy, I discovered, the 24th of June is a public holiday. In Florence, a parade traditionally occurs at the city centre, followed by fireworks over the Arno River in the evening. The web page where I found that information went on, "A popular activity while watching the fireworks is eating gelato, which is similar to ice cream." How amazing, "gelato", the Italian for ice cream, is "similar to ice cream". Who knew? 

Similar to ice cream is frozen yoghurt, something which has become very popular in recent years. I suspect someone decided it was healthier than ordinary ice cream. Mind you, with the amount of sugar that some yoghurts contain, this is probably not the case. Anyway, there is a chain of frozen yoghurt parlours (there's another term to play with!) called Smóoy. There's one on the promenade here in Sanxenxo. I have often wondered exactly how the Spanish pronounce it. Well, yesterday I saw an advert for it on TV. A crazy-looking young man was yelling into his mobile "¡Estoy en Smóoy!" Pronounced to rhyme with "estoy", it comes out as " ess...mo...oy", with the stress on the middle "mo". So now I know! 

I returned to the indoor pool yesterday (la piscina climatizada) as it was still a little chilly for outdoor swimming, even for me. Down I went in the lift, hotel bathrobe over my swimsuit, my door key and the obligatory swimming cap in the pocket of my robe, and the hotel towel, the one clearly intended for use in the spa section of the hotel, over my arm. I swam for a good while, up and down the pool, until I had had enough. When I got out and went to the lounger where I had left my towel and robe, there was no towel. Thinking back, I remembered a group of elderly folk being called out of the pool to go for their pre-booked session in the spa. I also remembered seeing one of them with two towels, one over his arm and the other still neatly folded. The silly old fool had clearly commandeered my towel as well as his own, even though his own stuff, including a robe, was on a lounger at the other end of the line. I suppose I was lucky he did not take my robe as well or I would have had to go to reception in nothing but my soggy swimsuit to explain that I could not get back into my room! 

Now, if they do an inventory of stuff in our room (or NOT in our room) they will find that we are missing a spa towel and a cushion. The other day Phil took a cushion down to the chess playing room to boost his seat a little. The chairs are elegant and quite comfortable but a little low for sitting at a chess board. After his mammoth game he forgot to pick up the cushion. By the time we thought of it, the room was locked. Next day there was no sign of it. 

I just hope they don't think we are spiriting stuff away to sell on the black market, or on the Sunday flea market in Pontevedra!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Out and about.

This morning after breakfast we took a stroll to nearby Portonovo, where there are some nice beaches but the place looks a bit more rundown than Sanxenxo. It's not a walk to do in the hot sunshine but today is a bit overcast so it was a good walk, mostly along boardwalks close to the beach. 

We had hoped that there would have been time for our room to have been sorted by the hotel staff in our absence but they had not reached our door by the time we got back. We may have to make do without housekeeping today! The playground we went past on our way to Portonovo was jam-packed full this morning. It might, of course, be because the schools have now broken up and there are just more children around to play there. Or it may be that parents of holiday-making children have decided that today is not a beach day and so are availing themselves of the playground. I fail to understand the reluctance to go and play in the beach in cloudy weather. OK, it may not be the kind of weather for going in and out of the sea or stretching out and toasting yourself but it's perfect for building complicated sand castles, which used to be a favourite holiday occupation of our son. How often we waited for the tide to come in and fill the moat of a very elaborate construction! But this morning, apart from a few hardy souls walking the timeline, the beach was almost as deserted at 12.00 as it had been at 9.00. 

Among other things, yesterday I read in the newspapers about new immigration rules to be introduced in the UK which will mean that lower-earning non-EU workers can be deported. After April next year non-EU workers who are earning less than £35.000 a year after being on the UK for six years will have to go. This is causing consternation for the Royal College of Nursing because it means that loads of foreign trained nurses, recruited at great cost by the NHS, will have to leave. A spokesperson said, “The NHS has spent millions hiring nurses from overseas in order to provide safe staffing levels. These rules will mean that money has just been thrown down the drain. “The UK will be sending away nurses who have contributed to the health service for six years. Losing their skills and knowledge and then having to start the cycle again and recruit to replace them is completely illogical.” 

Did no one see this coming? Why are they not recruiting in the UK? I know from my experience as a sixth form tutor how hard it is for young people to get onto nurse training courses. The system is crazy. 

Meanwhile, I have seen on the streets of Sanxenxo a beggar with a cardboard sign that read "ESPAÑOL sin recursos" pointing out that he is a SPANIARD without any means of support, not some FOREIGN beggar, I assume. 

And last night, as we strolled along the promenade here, we spotted an odd young man, long and lean and sunburnt, scruffily dressed, barefoot, wrapped in a blanket of sorts. He was walking along with two young women - mincing, rather than walking, doing an odd sort of dance along the pavement, perhaps because the hard surface hurt his feet - laughing and chatting with them. Suddenly he thrust a plastic cup in our faces, making some comment to the young women at the same time. A beggar! But one with would-be style and panache, trying to impress the girls! We had moved on before we really had time to realise he was asking for money. 

How very odd!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Yesterday, today and tomorrow

Yesterday was the longest day of the year. It's all downhill from now on, folks! OK, so I exaggerate! We still have a good while of long summer evenings to look forward to yet.

Yesterday was also Fathers' Day, or so I am told. Everybody (well, quite a large number of people I know) has been posting things about their fathers, living and "in Heaven". How can they all be so sure that their fathers have gone to Heaven? But anyway, there it is, a whole lot of sentimental stuff about wonderful men and role models and the like. I never remember there being a Fathers' Day when I was a child. Perhaps it's a move towards equal opportunity. Perhaps it's intended to encourage greater involvement on the part of fathers. Or perhaps it's just a plot to make people buy cards and presents on yet another "day".

Yesterday, on the boat to the Isla de Ons, there was what appeared to be a hen party. There was certainly a young woman wearing a pink sash and a coronet/headdress of white roses. She was accompanied by a gaggle of young women who all wore coronets/headdresses of multi-coloured rosebuds. They were taking lots of photos (selfies) and asking other passengers to take even more photos of all of them together. If it was a hen party, it seemed very civilised; instead of downing huge quantities of alcohol, they were anointing each other with suntan lotion. I suppose they could have had huge quantities of alcohol in their bags but on the whole they were a lot less loud and screechy than other such groups I have seen on trains and trams in the UK.

Here are some photos of the Isla de Ons, as promised.








This was the view from under my hat at one very hot point during my trek round the island!



Today would have been a much better day fr tramping around a virtually tree-free island. The day began with mist on the estuary and has grown progressively cloudier. I have even been driven to tryout the indoor pool - climatizada - in other words heated. A little too heated for me but you can't always get what you want!

As for tomorrow, the weatherman predicts more of the same. Some cloud, some sun. probably no rain. We shall see. There's precious little we can do about it anyway.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Island hopping.

Today I went to the Island of Ons, one of those islands out in the Atlantic that make up the Parque Nacional del Atlántico, off the coast of west Galicia. It's a nice island, not quite as spectacular, in my opinion, as the Islas Cíes, but still worth a visit. The same rules apply: leave nothing there and take nothing away. So you have to take your rubbish away with you and you can't pick flowers or collect seashells. 

Boats go there from Sanxenxo. At the moment they only run on Saturdays and Sunday's but after next weekend they will sail daily until the end of August. So if I was going to go during this stay, I really needed to go today. It was hot but I went provided with fruit and plenty of water. I'm not sure how far I walked but I gave up on the idea of getting to the lighthouse. It was altogether too hot to carry on walking on paths that were largely without shade. The Islas Cíes have the advantage of having at least one walk that is largely in the shade. But on the Island of Ons, I gave up and went and sat in the shade to cool down. I had thought I might have swum in the Atlantic but the sand was too hot to contemplate making my way to the water. 

 On the boat I had a nice chat with an Irish family. The father and son, the latter aged no more that 12, had done a section of the Camino de Santiago and the rest of the family had flown out to join them. As you might expect, they have been very impressed with Galicia. 

While I was out gallivanting Phil was slaving over a hot chessboard. He began playing at around 5.00, when I was catching the boat back from the island. I checked up on him and then went down to the pool to cool down. An hour later, he was still playing. I went for a drink in the bar. Another hour later he was still there, pushing the pieces around. There was quite a crowd standing watching this, the last game to finish. A friend told me he was "luchando como un campeón" - fighting like a champion. He needs to win like a champion, that was the thought that went through my head. 

Over four hours at the chessboard is a little excessive. And then he lost. How very annoying after so much effort. But tomorrow is another day. 

There will be more photos of my jaunt to the island tomorrow as well.

Saturday, 20 June 2015

In sunny Sanxenxo.

So, here we are in Sanxenxo for the chess tournament again. 

Yesterday the temperature at 9.00 in the morning registered 25 degrees already. By the time we walked down to the train station it was baking hot. We did not appreciate sitting on the train waiting for ten minutes before it decided to set off ... late! We had all been sold tickets with coach and seat numbers but the train we got on was a tiny, one coach affair. One lady was looking for seat number 30, which did not seem to exist. At one end of the carriage was one of those notices that lights up saying "parada solicitada". The kind you see on buses. Who requests a stop on a train? How long ago was that possible? And what kind of track would such a train run on? 

One consequence of the late departure of our train to Pontevedra was that we had to rush across from the train station to the bus station to catch our bus to Sanxenxo. There should have been almost twenty minutes. We had about five. It's a good job the two stations are so close to each other. The bus was already waiting and we had to buy tickets. My heart sank as I saw the queue at the ticket office but most of them seemed to be buying tickets for the same bus as us, so it worked out fine. 

The chap getting on the bus ahead of us was asking the driver to let him know when he reached Sanxenxo. Competent Spanish but a marked American accent, as I thought. Being a helpful, and nosy, soul, I spoke to him. My chessplayer radar was on the alert and somehow he looked like a chess player. What's more he was going to Sanxenxo. I was right. He turned out to be a Canadian international master (slightly different North American accent!) , well acquainted with a friend of ours. Small world syndrome strikes again. 

So even though the bus ride was still rather warm, we had a good chat. 

 Shortly after 2.00 we were installed in our hotel room - very pleasant, nice little terrace to sit out on in the morning before it gets too hot - and then off out for a light lunch. A longish swim in the excellent pool in the early evening and my happiness was complete. This hedonist is not very demanding. At breakfast this morning we have greeted a few old friends from former years. No doubt there will be more at the opening ceremony this afternoon. This is one of the pleasures of returning to a place where you have been before. After lunch it will all get more serious, for Phil anyway. 


The hotel is heaving with events. Some kind of reception was going on in one part of the hotel lounge. And there is a two-day yoga conference taking place here. I briefly considered asking if I could join in but all the people arriving look like very dedicated yoga fanatics, with their special mats and everything. I guess I'll just stick to my morning run along the promenade and a good swim later. 

We decided to go out for a walk before the day heats up too much. The forecast is for very hot again today and tomorrow. On our return, the ladies were still "doing" our room so we took refuge in the hotel lounge for a mineral water and a look at the papers. 

I read that King Felipe and his Queen Letizia have had a very good first year on the throne. There have been no adverse reports in the press apparently. Good for them. His Majesty's promise in his inauguration speech (coronation speech?) to make this a modern monarchy for the 21st century seems to be holding good so far. The article ended on a downbeat though, saying that there is, of course, still the Catalan question. The king may have a nicely united Spain but if Cataluña decides to opt out, will it still be Spain? Rather like the UK and Scotland! 

Back in the UK someone has come up with the "ultimate question" for Hadley Freeman: how to dress under the Tory government? This is to journalist Hadley Freeman in her quirky, slightly alternative fashion guru mode. She went on a bit about the expensive dresses worn by Samantha Cameron and the like. She didn't seem impressed with the way they wore them. She summarised her reply like this: "So that’s how you dress Tory: you take something fun and fabulous and make it staid and dull, awful for the masses but appealing to rich people. See? Tory scum just doesn’t cover it any more, even for Guardian readers. We now live in the era of Tory Twee." 

So it goes!

Friday, 19 June 2015

Taking the plunge.

There are a number of ways to enter a swimming pool. First there is the pre-pool shower. Do you do the whole-body shower, braving that cold water before the chill of the pool itself? Or do you do a sort of cursory, I'll-just-rinse-my-feet-a-bit shower? Or, like some, do you ignore the shower altogether? I recently watched a teenager being berated by a stern father (not his own) for jumping into the pool without showering. "Así que no sabes para que sirve la ducha," the man said. (So you don't know what the shower is for.) The teenager just gave him a surly look and carried on. This father was equally strict with his extremely well-behaved daughter. I decided her name must be "No chilles" because that is what he said to her whenever her voice went above a murmur. "Chillar" really means "to squeal" but he used "no chilles" to mean "don't shout". I began to feel quite sorry for the child. 

Okay, after the shower, getting into the water itself. Some do a dive-in from the deep end or a leap from the side. Most of us enter via the steps. Then some immediately do a kind of standing dive: a bit of a leap and a plunge and under the water they go. Proficient swimmers these, as are the divers from the deep end and leapers from the side. Others of us walk forwards into the water, letting the water make its way up our bodies. Then we stand there and do a sort of arm movement on the top of the water, a little like the arm movement of the breast stroke or even just kind of waving our arms over the surface. Then gradually, eventually, we set off and swim. Some, of course, never swim. They just enter the pool and stand in the shallow end, occasionally splashing themselves. And another group don't even get that far. They just sit on the side, near the steps, feet in the water, for all the world as if they have every intention of going in for a swim but in reality doing nothing of the kind. They just want to cool their feet down. 

Such is life at the poolside. It certainly beats working for a living? 

On the subject of work, I read something the other day by a journalist called Rebecca Nicholson. Her headline was, "Dear teenagers, you'll learn more from a Saturday job than from extra homework". Well, surely that depends on the Saturday job. Despite her belief in the benefits of having a part time job she went on to talk about her bad experience of working in a shoe shop as a Saturday job. I can sympathise. I did that as a teenager. She made £2.12 an hour. I made just under double that for the week when I did it full time in my summer holidays. But I suppose the value of money has changed. I remember one summer blowing my first week's wages on the Beatles' "Sergeant Pepper" LP. 

That last detail is totally irrelevant; I was just indulging in a little nostalgia. 

The main thrust of Ms. Nicholson's article was that sixth formers are no longer holding down Saturday jobs and she feels that they are missing out on useful experience. Apparently 42% of 16 - 17 year olds had part time jobs in 1996 compared with only 18% nowadays. This is being attributed to young people preferring to study. The journalist feels that they could learn more useful stuff by getting some work experience. 

Now, I spent many years persuading students in sixth form that they should not work too many hours as this could reduce their grades. We had statistical evidence to prove it. The problem was that in reality they weren't Saturday jobs. Employers asked for students' timetables and expected them to work odd hours around that, as many hours as possible, with the threat of losing the job if they failed to comply. And, really, I am not sure how much you actually learn from working in a fast food restaurant. 

But the question of 16 - 17 years olds working is an difficult one. I suspect that it is not really that they have all discovered an amazing work ethic as regards their studies. I know of quite a large number of young people, ex-teenagers and ex-sixth formers, who maintained their part-time jobs throughout their university study days and then, in many cases, kept them on because they couldn't find a "proper job" to match their qualifications. The jobs for six formers simple are not there. They are being done by older, although still young, people. 

 I think I am going back to the pool!

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Fairy stories.

A friend of ours has taken to writing stories for his grandchildren. And why not? They apparently enjoy them. He emailed us one to see what we thought of it. Lots of witches (good and bad), wizards (good and bad) and dragons (also good and bad). And, of course, a princess. A princess, moreover, brought up by good, loving common folk until the moment comes to reveal her true identity. Well, don't an awful lot of little girls think they are really princesses being brought up by common folk? I'm just a little surprised that our friend, who never struck me as a royalist, should go down that route, but life if full of surprises. 

 It's a good enough story, perhaps a little derivative - naming day for the little princess and good wishes given (by witches, not fairies) when the door slams open and the bad wizard is there on his dragon, demanding the princess! But there are really only so many scenarios you can put in a fairytale. I wonder if he plans to publish. Worse things have been published in their time. Of course, he doesn't have the advantage of being a duchess, married to one of the royal princes, but you can't have it all. At least his grandchildren are hearing stories, told by their grandfather, their imagination being stimulated, and not just staring at a screen. 

Mind you, opinion on that seems to be divided at the moment. There is a scientist who believes that children should be given iPads almost as soon as they are born. Tablets should be part of a baby's world from the start, she maintains, declaring that they provide more sensory stimulation for babies than books do. 

"They learn so fast on tablets. It is shocking how fast they learn – even faster than adults – to do things like scroll up and down text." These are her words. Really? They learn useful things like scrolling and texting? Texting before they can speak or read perhaps? The perfect excuse for the parents who hand over their iPhones to keep their toddlers quiet. You may have gathered that I am less than convinced! 

I am even less convinced when she goes on to say, “Books are static. When you observe babies with books, all they are interested in is the sound of the pages turning. Their visual system at that age is attracted by movement." She clearly has not seen our small granddaughter with books. From a very early age she sat and looked intently at picture books, progressing to pointing out individual items in the pictures. Only attracted by the movement, my eye! 

Of course babies are attracted by movement. A baby in its pram under a tree will watch the leaves moving. Mobiles (the things hanging from ceilings or above babies' cots, not the telephonic kind) are wonderful for keeping small babies happy. 

Don't get me wrong. I am all in favour of a bit of technology. It's just that I tend to agree with the child development people who recommend delaying its introduction into a child's life as long as possible and then limiting its use. Tiny minds need to be expanded, not blown! 

Keep on writing and telling those stories!

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Lunch, Art and Reality.

We walked out in the sunshine today to have lunch with friends. There is something civilised about sitting outside on the terrace of a cafe/bar/restaurant, watching the world go by even if, as on this occasion, the service was a little slow and we had to keep reminding the waiter that we had actually ordered stuff. Maybe the heat was getting to him. 

On our way to the restaurant we passed at least five "parking beggars", the chaps who carry out a mild blackmail, ushering drivers into spaces they have already spotted and then expecting a tip for doing so. The drivers will still have to go to the machine and buy a ticket for the parking spot in most cases but will also pay the "parking beggars" or run the risk of something untoward happening to their vehicle before they return. As I said, a form of blackmail. 

Many beggars, buskers, homeless people have a dog. It's for companionship, I suppose, and possible for protection when sleeping rough. Even if the dog doesn't provide much actual protection as such it can at least alert the rough sleeper to the fact that someone is messing with the few possessions he carries around with him. And, of course, it also serves as a means of tugging the heart strings of sentimental passers by. My heart strings are not so easily pulled, however. Today we saw a chap without a dog but with a small soft toy canine sticking out of his bag. Different, I suppose! And possibly less messy. Although less protection is afforded by a soft toy! 

There is a character in Armistead Maupin's Tales from the City series who takes medication to darken the pigmentation of her skin. Her lover, discovering that she is regularly taking pills, is convinced she must be dying of some thing horrible. This is not the case. She simply wants to be black. I don't remember what her motivation was, some artistic, hippy thing perhaps. It might even have been that her career opportunities as a model would be greater if she were black. Maybe I should reread the books to find out. 

In a weird case of life imitating art, a woman working for the Association for the Advancement of Coloured People in the USA has been doing a similar thing. She hasn't got as far as taking medication, as far as I know, but she wears dark make-up and has her hair in Afro curls. Her parents have "outed" her, stating that she was born Caucasian, with some German and other European blood in there, although perhaps just a little Native American. Childhood photos show her to be blonde. Her brother, who is adopted, is mixed race. Perhaps she wanted to be like him. When he found her secret, she asked him not to reveal it as the people she worked with believed she too was mixed race. 

It's an odd case of confused values. Once you start on that sort of deception it demands a lot of work to keep it up. The stress and worry about someone finding out must be enough to give you grey hair. She appeared to be carrying out this deception for all sorts of good reasons. Maybe she feared people would not believe in her dedication if she were not mixed race. But surely the struggle for racial equality would benefit more from more white people standing up and arguing for it. If racial equality is going to become a reality it needs ALL races to fight for it. 

Here's a link to an interesting view of the question. I can't help feeling that there is still something wrong with a society where it is still important to define yourself racially and where people who have taken you at face value can change their view of you if they discover you have, or indeed don't have, that all important drop of "coloured blood". There was a time when some coloured people tried desperately to "pass" as white and now white people work hard at being as tanned as possible. What a strange world! 

Meanwhile Rachel Delezal, the lady in question has resigned from her job as a consequence of all the controversy. She has been made to feel she can no longer do the job. In an ideal world, of course, she would never have felt the need to pretend to be something she wasn't or, if she really believed in that identity, to emphasise that one aspect of herself. Possibly she did not want to appear as a 'do-gooder", an outsider trying to reform a society. Who knows?

Monday, 15 June 2015

Sights and sounds of Sunday.

Down at the Carrefour roundabout yesterday morning there was a certain amount of bustle and activity. They were blocking off one carriageway and setting up refreshments stalls. A sponsored race of some kind to raise funds for cancer research, for the Asociación Española Contra el Cancer, was about to take place. At least that's what it looked like. 

I asked at the breadshop. The weather witch's aged mother knew nothing about it. So it was not just me who had missed some moderately important notice then. It's quite hard to understand an aged weather witch when she gets a bit excited and talks fast, especially when she is sucking a boiled sweet at the same time. I did, however, manage to understand the story she was telling me of a woman who won hundreds of thousands on the lottery and gave a quarter of it to cancer research. Good for her! 

The morning was full of the distant sound of sports commentary over a public address system, not quite loud enough to make out what was being said but close enough for the intonation to be heard. There is a special intonation for sports commentary here in Spain, just as there is one for public safety announcements in bus stations and train stations throughout the UK. The Spanish sports commentary has a tone of contained, detached excitement, with a singsong rhythm that isn't quite natural to speech while UK bus and train station announcements always sound like a condescending infant school teacher talking to a demented group of small charges. I find both annoying but the second one especially so. 

Other sounds of the morning were those of gunfire. On the other side of the bay there must be a firing range of some kind. Either that or somebody goes out hunting there on a Sunday morning. For we have noticed this phenomenon quite often before now. The sound echoes around so that it is difficult to work out exactly where it is coming from. Puffs of smoke on the hillside between Moaña and the Rande Bridge reveal the place however. You can't hide much from us! 

The rain managed to keep off throughout the morning so we had an early lunch, intending to go out for a walk up to A Guía in the relatively early afternoon. Since we got here almost three weeks ago Phil has been chained to the computer, meeting a translation deadline and this was the first time he had felt free to take a longish walk. Inevitably the rain set in immediately after lunch and we had to postpone our promenade. We did get out later and did walk to A Guía, opting to take the coastal path instead of walking up to the chapel lighthouse. And it did rain on us again but we were well on our way by then. Besides, we had gone prepared, umbrellas at the ready, That's the way it goes. 

Today the sun seems to be back, although a little hesitant, hiding behind intermittent cloud. I have been back in the pool. A bit chilly but I managed. We have standards to maintain after all!!

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Rain. Travel problems.

At some point in the night I woke to the swishing sound of tyres on wet road. So it was raining! Well, it had been forecast. The sun can't always shine. Not in Galicia anyway but we have had a rather fine amount of sunshine since we arrived two and a half weeks ago. No complaints. I almost complained when it started to rain on me on my way to the baker's shop this morning but I decided against it. 

I read yesterday about a six-year-old girl who was held by Paris airport police for three days over suspicions she had a fake passport. She was travelling as an unaccompanied minor and had all the necessary documents. So someone at the airport in Cameroon, where she was travelling from, had checked everything was ok. Her mother was waiting for her at Charles de Gaulle airport. Imagine the mother's consternation when her little girl did not appear at the exit gate. Imagine the little girl's confusion, distress, panic as they kept her in a special police daycare unit for three days. She then had to appear before a judge (rather daunting when you are only six!) who asked her to identify her mother in the court room, and teachers and school friends from photos (the child was born in Paris and goes to school there). If she isn't traumatised for life, that little girl will have a story to dine out on for the rest of her life. 

I have second hand experience of such trauma at Charles de Gaulle airport. Years ago now, I accompanied a group of Travel and Tourism students to Disneyland Paris, at that time still known as Eurodisney. The students, 16 a 18 year olds, were given lectures on the business side of the theme park in the mornings, hotel and catering management, the running of the theme park side of it and so on, and in the afternoon they had free time in the park itself. In the evening they were supposed to write up their assignments - and I mean "write" as this predated the tablets and laptops that all students seem to possess nowadays - while the staff made sure they were not having wild parties in their rooms. 

 Anyway, one day we had a coach trip into the centre of Paris itself. It was a baking hot day and one of the boys ended up hospitalised overnight with heatstroke. After some argument with the insurance company it was agreed that he could be flown home instead of travelling overnight by coach with the rest of us. After further argument, it was very grudgingly agreed that a member of staff could fly with him. The boy was 18 and technically could have flown alone but he was from a strict Moslem family in Bolton. This was the first time he had travelled anywhere without his family, the first time he had been out of the UK, let alone be expected to manoeuvre a foreign airport on his own. This was just as well for he was stopped at Charles de Gaulle airport, suspected of being an illegal immigrant, possible North African, trying to get to Britain. Fortunately this was before 9.11 and the Twin Towers, so he wasn't accused of terrorism as well! The accompanying teacher had to work hard to persuade the authorities that he could vouch for this young man. Nasty, suspicious people these Charles de Gaulle airport officials. Clearly they haven't changed! 

It's not just Charles de Gaulle airport staff however. My only occasion of having my own identity challenged took place at Madrid airport. Once again I was with a bunch of students. We had arrived at the airport to be told that out flight was delayed, possibly cancelled. We had arrangements for the students to be collected by coach from Manchester airport and so we had to reorganise things. For some reason this involved my going back and forth through security. At the last moment, with me on the wrong side of security with a student, they announced imminent boarding of our flight. With five minutes to go, I found myself with a security chap looking at my passport photo and then at me and then asking if I was sure that this was my passport. True, in the passport I had very short hair and now my hair was shoulder length. Also true, my passport was coming to the end of its ten year life. 

Even so, in the six months previous to this occasion I had travelled through Malaga, Palma de Mallorca and Düsseldorf airports without problem. Also I had been through Madrid airport security that very evening at least four or five times, again without problems. So what was going on?All of this I explained in my best angry Spanish to the man in uniform. He recommended I renew my passport as soon as possible and let us through. My student picked her chin up off the floor and followed me. 

We flew home without further incident!

Friday, 12 June 2015

Sunsets, swimming habits and public spending suggestions.

Sometimes on the weather forecast on television they show photos of the continent as seen, I presume, from a plane or a satellite. Great swirls of cloud are shown to be moving in on different parts of Europe, leaving some places completely clear and covering others, usually the UK, with impending gloom. Well, the other evening our sunset looked rather like that it seems as if a huge swathe of cloud was being generated, out just beyond the Islas Cíes and making its threatening way inland. Even the colours were appropriate. After all, the weathermen also show us colour-coded maps: oranges and reds indicating hot areas and greens no blues for the cooler places. 

Whether or not that cloud brought in a different weather pattern, rolling it in like the mist that comes up the estuary on occasion, the temperatures have fallen. There is no longer a wall of heat awaiting you when you step outside. The kind of thing that hits you when you step off the plane, for example, in Malaga. My weather-witch bread lady tells me that it will be cooler and even rainy over the weekend. We shall see. Not much we can do about it anyway. I still don't think the drop to 20 degrees really merits the coats and scarves I have seen on children and mothers in the school run this morning though. Different attitudes! 

It's a strange phenomenon of relatively cooler weather that the water in the swimming pool feels warmer than it does when the weather is baking hot. Scientists would probably tell me that it's all to do with your skin temperature and stuff like that. All I know is that it was very pleasant in the pool, not because it cooled you down but because the water was good to swim in. I was the only one there this morning. As I said, different attitudes. No doubt it is too cold for the locals to go and swim. Not that many of them swim any distance. Not that I have seen anyway. They probably think I am slightly mad as I do circuits of the pool. It is rather too short to talk about doing lengths but if the pool is empty you can do circuits and swim quite a distance without stopping, once again I am reminded of the dormouse in Alice in Wonderland, swimming in circles is a sea of Alice's tears. 

Out in the bay late this morning one of the orange tug boats was sending fountains of water up into the air in quite a spectacular fashion. The first time I saw them do this was several years ago when the tall ships race had a stop off in Vigo and the tug boats honoured their arrival with a watery display. Today there didn't seem to be any reason for it. Maybe they just have to test the system from time to time. Somehow I don't think the ability to do this is just so that they can make a pretty display. It must be used for things like putting out fires on boats and so on. 

After lunch I decided to walk out in the wind and go up to the Castro. It's still there, where it always was. The views are still rather fine. They appear to have extended the cafe bar by opening a kind of roof terrace, although it was closed today. I usually like to go in through the main entrance, through a sort of tunnel, the extent of which demonstrates just how thick the walls are, and then out by a gate on the other side through what look as though they might have been stables at one time. That gate was not just closed but barricaded and there were supports holding the roof of the gateway up. I hope it isn't in serious danger of falling down. If that is the case, I hope they spend some money putting it right. That would seem to me a much better use of public funds than making a flower bed down the middle of our road!!! 

 I must keep an eye on progress there.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Odds and ends.

Some years ago I went to A Coruña with a group of students from the college where I worked. Everyone discovered the delights of pimientos de padrón ("Oh, we ate these little green peppers, fried and sprinkled with salt. Have you tried them?" one student asked me on day two.) and pulpo, octopus served very tender on wooden platters. Somehow, offering traditional fish and chips on the return visit by young Spaniards lacks that exotic quality. Among other things we took a trip to Santiago where, as well as admiring the cathedral, we went to an exhibition about the making of The Lord of the Rings films. One of my students, a great fan of both the book and the films waxed indignant about the things that had been omitted from the film. She was obviously a girl of the old school, one who believes that when you make the film of a book you should keep faithfully to the original text. None of that "(loosely) based on such and such a novel by so and so" for her. Mostly I agree with her. That's why some of the old films like Gone with the Wind and Rebecca are so long ... and so good! However, to include every story line from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings they might have needed to make six films instead of three. 

I was reminded about this because yesterday I read a review of series five of Game of Thrones and found myself spluttering in indignation, just as my student had done, about the changes to the storyline. In this case, it's not just a matter of things being missed out, events have been altered, changed utterly to meet the demands of television. And all this with the total cooperation of the writer, George R. R. Martin, who has been so busy adapting his books for the TV series that he has not been getting on with the long promised next book. It's a poor do! 

Now, we got into Game of Thrones when our son bought us the first series as a box set of DVDs one Christmas. On this occasion, breaking my long established habit of reading the book first, I saw series one before I read book one but I rapidly read the books that followed. Setting aside the silliness of the white walkers - zombies, undead creatures, a piece of nonsense I can do without - it's a good romp through medieval power grabbing and intrigue. The characters I met in the first book all have, inevitably, the faces of the actors who played them on the TV series but I have protested at the casting of characters I came across later. Sometimes the casting directors have a different vision from mine! 

I now regard the two things, books and TV series, as completely different entities which just happen to have the same name and began from the same basic idea. I would, however, like Mr Martin to get on with the next (possibly final) book or books as soon as possible. I hear he is not a well man and would not like him to pop his clogs before he finishes the work. I wonder, though, whether the new book will be a continuation of the novel series or the TV series! 

Even though I enjoy films and box sets of TV series, on the whole I still prefer a good read. I love the linguistic curiosities that are thrown up. For example, reading Arnold Bennett's Anna of the Five Towns I came across the term "biscuit", explained in a footnote as referring to pottery which has been fired only once. This is curious as the term "biscuit" from its French origin "bis cuit" really means twice cooked. This is the sort of thing that you get interested in when you study foreign languages. 

Other people must also enjoy reading because I have come across several people recently walking down the street with an open book or kindle in their hands, eyes on the page and in danger of bumping into lampposts, trees and other pedestrians. I am always tempted to ask what they are reading that is so un-put-down-able that they have to read as they walk. Much better, however, than walking along with someone and having a separate conversation on your mobile all the way along the street. 

The debate about use of electronic devices by schoolchildren continues. My daughter recently posted a link to an article about the problems caused by allowing your children to use iPad and laptops before going to bed. There is something in the blue light emitted which prevents sleep. (Maybe that's why I had trouble sleeping last night after spending hours proof reading a translation job on the computer!!) The article even recommends that schools should not set homework which demands Internet research. For the same reason. Schoolchildren will always leave stuff until the last minute! 

Schools also have a lot of problems with mobile phones. There is research that says that results improve if pupils are not constantly using their phones. Many schools, therefore, want to ban them and then find themselves resisted by parents who want their offspring to have mobile for security reasons. (Whatever did we do before mobiles were invented and, in my case, when there wasn't even a phone in the house for me to call my parents?) 

Now a school in Norway has instituted a system where every classroom has a set of cubby holes, little wooden boxes where students put their phones at the start of the day and collect them at the end. Sounds good to me although I don't see in happening in UK schools. Years ago they got rid of the lockers where pupils could leave their coats and bags during the day. They said it was because lockers were regularly vandalised but I always thought it was because they wanted to use the space for some other purpose. Whatever the motivation, British school kids carry their laden bags and their, often wet, coats around all day! 

This is the sort of nonsense that goes on!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Oddities of the modern world.

I continue to be worried by the promised EU referendum in the UK. I am not the only one by all accounts. People of other nationalities have also expressed their concern. The Polish Secretary of State for European affairs has been warning that British people would almost certainly not be able to travel as freely within Europe as they do now, nor to work and buy homes in other EU countries. UK businesses would find themselves facing new problems as the country would no longer be able to influence the rules of the internal market. 

I wish someone would make this absolutely clear to the great British public who might just vote us out of the EU and into a very minor role on the world stage. There is rather too much burying of heads in sand going on. 

On less serious matters, I have come across a comment by Angela Merkel about Facebook (as opposed to ON Facebook - I am not a friend or follower of the lady). She is reported to have said, 'It's nice to have it, like it's nice to have a decent washing machine'. Obviously a practical lady who does not get carried away. A good person to be in charge of a country? 

In this she differs from Malaysian authorities who arrested a foreign national on Tuesday for allegedly stripping naked to pose for pictures on the country’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu, an act some Malaysians have said angered the spirits of the mountain and caused an earthquake. I am amazed that in the 21st century such beliefs continue to be adhered to and that people can be arrested for it. Once again I find myself wondering if those who believe in ancient rituals use the trappings of the 21st century in their everyday life. If so, how do they reconcile the two parts of their life. I thought of this again when I read Richard Feynman describing staying in a room in a Jewish seminary, where young men were training to be rabbis. Getting in the lift one Saturday he asked the man who got in with him which floor he wanted to go to. The man stopped him from pressing any buttons, explaining that was his job. On the Sabbath the young trainee rabbis were not permitted to press the buttons but he, a non-Jew, did it for them. I am just surprised they were allowed to use the lift! 

And now for some thing completely different. A woman in Devon arrived home to find that her garden was full of gnomes,107 gnomes to be precise, all carefully arranged in her front garden. She reported the matter to the police. “Someone has taken quite a bit of time and effort to place them there,” a police spokesman said. “It has unsettled the homeowner, who has no idea why there were put in her front garden at night. We are seeking to establish where the gnomes have come from." 

 Now, he said it unsettled her but in fact she said she found it hilarious, one of the funniest things she has seen in a long time. The police took them away and are trying to discover who they belong to. Have they been stolen from other folk's gardens or stolen en masse from a garden centre. The house owner has been told that she can have them back if nobody claims them within 28 days. Amazing! 

Her final comment: “It’s the best, most bizarre thing that has ever happened to me. I don’t know who did it but I would love to know. I would love to shake their hand and say: ‘Well done, you made me laugh.’” 

Wonderful reaction!

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Further thoughts on language learning.

The discussion I mentioned yesterday that Phil and I had about language teaching and learning began with this episode in the lift. Phil started with an introductory phrase about the fine weather, a stock phrase that we both taught to our pupils years ago. I responded and then we took it in turns to add a detail. 

Phil: "Par un beau jour d'été... 

Me: ... où il faisait beau et le soleil brillait ... 

Phil: ... dans le ciel bleu ... 

Me: ... et les oiseaux chantaient dans les arbres... 

Phil: Pierre et Jean se promenaient dans les beau champs. 

Me: Ils allaient à la rivière ... 

Phil:... car ils allaient à la pêche. 

Me: Soudain Pierre est tombé dans l'eau. 

Phil: "Zut alors," a dit Jean (correction: ... s'est exclamé Jean) 

Me: "Que dois-je faire? J'ai laissé mon téléphone portable à la maison." 

At which point the lift reached the ground floor and we exited, only to continue talking about language teaching and learning. We were just messing about, beginning with comments on the hot weather but anyone who has had anything to do with the old 16+ French exam will recognise the style of the famous picture essay. Students had to respond to a series of pictures which told a story and write it out in French, demonstrating their knowledge of tenses, their use of good expressions and their general ability to put things together in French. Of course, they learnt a whole lot of "good expressions" which they knew would win them brownie points; well, the bright ones did anyway. The thing was that they used them appropriately and it gave everyone a chance to show off what they knew. And it worked. 

It was replaced with something much more watered down, a piece of writing on a topic agreed by the teacher and the pupil. As a rule this was prepared in advance, corrected and sometimes improved by the teacher, learnt by heart and then written out at school under exam conditions. It doesn't sound bad until you come across the student whose parents, older siblings, next door neighbour who happened to be a French teacher had written the piece for them. Oh, yes, they had to learn it but some did so without having much of an idea of what it was about. 

Occasionally I would show my A Level students examples of the old exam papers and they declared that they could not have done it. Their horror increased when I showed them the passages I had to translate from English to French of vice versa! 

Still reading Richard Feynman, I got to the point where he describes going to a Physics conference in Japan. Before he went, he learnt a few stock phrases in Japanese. All the American physicists who went were instructed to do and, indeed, were given a military phrase book to help them but he was the only one who did so. This was fairly typical. He wanted the whole experience. On arrival he was disappointed to be lodged in an American style hotel and insisted on being transferred to a traditional Japanese one. 

And he continued his Japanese learning until he hit a problem with levels of formality, which put him off the whole idea. He discovered that the Japanese use completely different words for the same thing according to the context, in other words, the person being addressed. For example, the verb "to see" translates in a variety of ways. If you want to invite someone to see your garden (I suppose you might do that in a country with elegant formal gardens) you would say, "Would you like to take a quick look at my lousy garden?" If you want to see theirs, you ask, "May I gaze on your elegant garden?" And if you are dealing with the gardens at some temple you ask the priest, "May I hang my eyes on your most magnificent gardens?" Richard Feynman could take that but the straw that broke the camel's back was that the same level of formality and variety existed also when talking about solving equations. He abandoned his Japanese studies. 

I find myself wondering how Japanese slang works. Does it even exist? Surely it must do. Do Japanese teenagers maintain the level of formality of their forbears? Language has, after all, a tendency to simplify and no amount of insistence on sticking to the old rules (and I recognise that I am one of those fuddy-duddies who protest about ungrammatical English) will make any difference.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Getting hot and bothered about stuff.

 26 degrees at the roundabout first thing this morning! I heard thunder in the night but if it rained, then it must have been too far away for me to hear it. Later in the day, out on a hunt for Brazil nuts and cranberry juice, among other things, I saw chemists' signs registering 30 and 31 degrees. Rather hot! 

There was, however, only me and a seagull down at the pool in the late morning. I heard some splashing, turned around and saw Mrs Gaviota give herself a bath in the pool. Fortunately I wasn't actually in the water at the time. I think that might have freaked me out a little, swimming in circles around a seagull. She hung around for a while after I got into the pool, as if to register her protest that there was a PERSON in the water! Last seen, she was flying off with nesting material in her beak. Otherwise, the pool was mine. Perhaps the clouds put off the serious sun worshippers. As I was leaving a couple of people turned up, the sort who have clearly arrived home from work and want to cool off quickly before lunch. Having a pool is truly one of the delights of a civilised life! 

I have been reading the ramblings of a civilised man: the physicist Richard Feynman, who worked in Los Alamos on the production of the atomic bomb. You could, I suppose, argue that the bomb is not the most civilised thing in the world. Weapons of mass destruction rarely are. But the man himself is a delight, finding joy in discovering things, playing friendly jokes on people and happily prepared to make fun of himself as well. He spent some time teaching at a university in Brazil, where he was disturbed, and quite disgusted, to find that most of the students In his classes theoretically knew all sorts of things about physics but in reality did not actually understand what they had been examined on, and declared to have passed! They had learnt definitions by heart but had never fully understood the concepts. Consequently they could not apply the concepts to real situations and experiments. Their pride prevented them from asking questions. In fact anyone who asked questions we mocked and looked down on. He made a speech at the end of his secondment there, provoking academics there to rethink their approach! 

I was reminded, reading this, of a discussion Phil and I had just yesterday about the parlous state of foreign language teaching and learning in many schools in the UK. (Richard Feynman, by the way, taught himself enough Portuguese to give lectures in the language!) Teaching A and AS level French and Spanish in sixth form colleges, I was constantly coming across students who had achieved high grades in their GCSE exam without having much linguistic knowledge. Seemingly, they had been told in advance what questions they could expect to be asked in the spoken exam. They prepared, with the teacher's help, excellent answers and learnt them off pat, without fully understanding what they were saying. Of course, this did not apply to all students but certainly to many. They were horrified to discover that I was not going to do this for the spoken exam at this higher level, but expected a genuine conversation! 

There is always a certain amount, indeed quite a lot, of rote learning involved in language study. But it has to be the right stuff. In that way the verb forms, agreement of adjectives, use of prepositions and constructions become second nature. What's more, if it is structured properly, this rote learning becomes a liberating tool, leading to independent language use. But it requires a lot of hard work, as does any skill. Great musicians almost certainly have a gift for whatever instrument they play but they will also have spent hours doing routine practice to hone their skills. 

Somewhere along the way, in the last twenty to thirty years, there has been some throwing out of the baby along with the bath water. We are churning out students who can ask for directions but can only understand the answer if the person they speak to sticks to the script. When I was first studying Spanish and French we spent an inordinate amount of time translating sentences from one language to the other. I had school friends who found the whole thing very confusing but they struggled on and achieved a reasonable level of competence, although some of them could not string a sentence together. Clearly that approach was not totally successful. 

Then came a move to make foreign language learning mimic the process of first language learning. This is not really possible; you will never again have that completely clean slate to work on and need to take shortcuts to speed up language acquisition. But there were changes and improvements in foreign language teaching, notably as a result of borrowing techniques from the teaching of English as a foreign language. We still made the students learn language patterns though and I think that on the whole we did a decent job. 

But then, inevitably things went a stage further and suddenly it was considered somehow wrong to expect students to learn lots of grammar rules. If it was too hard they would be bored and give up! Where did that idea come from? Teaching in a large comprehensive school in the seventies, my pupils were expected to master the present tense, the future and a couple of past tenses by the end of the second year (year 8 in modern parlance) and I sent them home with masses of questions to answers, repetitive exercises to complete and stuff to learn. And for the most part they rose to the challenge and enjoyed the code breaking element of language learning. 

A lot of that seems to have disappeared. I think it needs to come back. By the time youngsters are deemed old enough to have opinions and ideas, and this happens at an ever earlier stage nowadays, they should be equipped with the tools to express some of those competently in a foreign language. That's where the fun, the interesting part of language learning lies. 

Bring back the challenge, the fun, the interest: that's what I say!