Friday, 31 December 2010

End of year push.

Well, 2010 is rushing to a close. A year ago we were wondering if we would get back to Spain because of snow and ice and ash clouds possibly preventing planes from taking off. And here we are this year in the UK still undecided about our future but still feeling the pull of Spain in general and Galicia in particular.

One thing I’m not missing from Galicia is the percebe, the goose barnacle, which is apparently selling around €170 a kilo and is being snatched up for the Nochevieja feast. People were queuing up at O Berbés fish market in Vigo for this and other shellfish ready for tonight’s celebratory meal. While I love most mariscos, I have to say that the percebe doesn’t do a great deal for me.

On the subject of food I came across a gastronomic blog by one Mikel
López Iturriaga the other day. He was listing things he hopes will disappear in 2011: badly soundproofed restaurants where you can more easily hear the conversations of all the other diners than the one going on at your own table; piped music in restaurants making conversation impossible; what he describes as “froth”, in other words restaurants trying to mask poor ingredients with fancy presentation; boring interviews with celebrity chefs; the continuing rise in the price of tapas and pinchos, a consequence according to the blogger of the increased popularity of cocina española.

Meanwhile there are rather a lot of ladies in Spain hoping to end 2010 by giving birth before they have to eat the 12 grapes which herald in the New Year. Back in 2007 the Spanish government introduced a payment of €2,500 for each child born in the country, as a way of encouraging couples to have more children and thus reverse the falling birth-rate. It even led to a scurrilous cartoon in a satirical magazine suggesting that Prince Felipe and his wife should get busy and earn their bonus. Now the government has decided to cut this bonus payment because of the financial problems of the country.

Consequently ladies whose babies are due on the 1st, 2nd, 3rd of January or even later into the month are doing all they can to bring forward their delivery date. Requests for induced birth and arrangements for elective caesarean have increased. Doctors are faced with another ethical dilemma. And we have a strange reversal of New Year’s birth stories. Usually there is a kind of competition to have the first New Year’s baby and get your picture in the paper. Now, if the baby is born at one minute past midnight the new mum is going to be disgruntled at being out of pocket by €2,500, missing out on the cheque bebé.

Feel sorry for the poor child: not only should she have been a boy but she should have been born a little earlier and earned a bit of money for mamá and papá. Poor thing!

That’s one source of income out of the way. Maybe, in Galicia at least, they should be taking heart from a little something that came my way recently. As part of the Christmas madness we had a visit from my brother in law who brought us, as he often does, a collection of cuttings from newspapers, mostly chess-related but this year including an advertisement placed in a financial magazine by the Xunta de Galicia. Asking the question “Why Invest in Galicia?”, it invited people interested in investing in Europe to take a look at to find out about the grants available to new investors. Let’s hope it attracts some money to the region and creates a few jobs.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

On laws and awards and other matters.

It’s that time of year when you go out of your way to meet old friends you’ve not seen for ages and ages. That’s just what I did last week. Knowing that my former work colleagues were coming to the end of term on Tuesday and knowing that they are almost all creatures of habit, I set off for the hostelry where they usually have an end of term drink in the early afternoon. And I was not wrong; there they all were, relaxing happily and celebrating the prospect of two weeks without getting up to go to work. It was very good to see everyone again.

It was also very good to be able to have a drink in a smoke-free atmosphere. That was one pub that didn’t seem to be suffering a drop in customers because of the UK smoking ban. And then, probably the following day and certainly for a few days after that, I kept reading about Spain’s new smoking ban, due to come into force on January 2nd. I find it quite amusing that they have decided to “spare” New Year’s Day. People can still go out and celebrate the start of 2011 with as much tobacco smoke as they like.

The next day, however, it all changes. There will be no smoking allowed in bars or restaurants, hospitals or health centres (not even in the doorways), schools, entrances to schools, children’s playgrounds or open air swimming pools where there are children’s playgrounds nearby, nor in bingo halls or casinos. Hotels will be able to keep their 30% of smokers’ rooms but airports and railways stations will lose their smoking areas. And the list goes on and on, including a nicely vague ban on smoking "en todos los demás espacios cerrados de uso público o colectivo". When will they ban smoking in the street?
I particularly liked the report that said that smoking will not be allowed in trains or taxis and not even on the upper deck of tourist buses, despite these being “al aire libre”. Similarly I was amused to read that “Clubes de fumadores” can be created but they must be non-profit organizations and can’t have any employees. Only members will be allowed in and no products can be sold there. Oh, and in prisons and psychiatric institutions there will be special smoking areas. I would have thought that completely banning smoking in prison could be a suitable extra punishment.
Somehow it seems especially Spanish that they have gone from a very half-hearted smoking ban where bars could decide for themselves whether they were smoking or no-smoking places to a possibly stricter ban than in many other countries. There have been some protests about the arrival of the nanny state – el Estado-padre- and an “exceso de proteccionismo”. Opinions are divided on what the effect will be on the hotel and catering industry and there is some discusión of what constitutes a “terraza” and whether one can smoke there or not..

Meanwhile it remains true that Spaniards smoke a lot; around 30% of Spnaish adults smoke regularly, despite the fact that sales of cigarettes have gone down slightly. However this latter fact may be because the amount of rolling tobacco sold has gone up; the crisis has forced many people to roll their own cigarettes.
Another law being considered for the new year in Galicia is the possible intrduction of compulsory school uniform in state schools. This will apparently avoid the problem of deciding whether headscarves, veils and other religious odds and ends are allowed in school. If they aren’t on theuniform list, no point in trying to wear them. It would also allow schools to prevent boys from wearing lowslung trousers and girls from wearing tops which reveal their belly buttons (with or without piercing). This rounds like an old argument to me!

In the meantime some old friends have been in the news. One of Spain’s favourite acting couples, Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, are about to have their own nativity scene any day now. However, since they have recently been seen at a Lakers’ game in Los Angeles it would seem they have decided the baby will be born in the USA alter all. Pé has had a busy pregnancy, filming the third Pirates of the Caribbean film during which her sister Mónica had to stand in for her for some risky bits of acting.

My hero Alberto Contador, still under investigation for possible use of performance enhancing drugs, has been tweeting or twittering about how positive he feels about 2011 and his new cycling team, Saxobank. He has declared, "el año que viene será histórico".

And, finally, the late Paul the Psychic Octopus, predictor of Spain’s World Cup triumph has won an award, despite being dead. I read in the free paper left lying around on all our local buses that Paul has won the “Dafta”, an award that celebrates the best weird news story of the year. There you go!

Well, we still have an average temperature of around 0° here and I see that most of Spain is on yellow or orange alert for cold weather. So there’s no escaping the cold then.

I just hope everyone has been having a Feliz Navidad and that Santa has brought or the Kings will bring lots of excellent gifts.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Traditions and rituals

Christmas rushes towards us and I see all the traditions coming out once again.

tree is up and decorated, with a few new baubles as per family tradition: this year a new fairy, a sparkly robin and some of the tiniest little glass bauble imaginable, about ½ an inch in diameter and looking altogether too pretty to take out of their box at first. We managed it in the end however and soon had a production line of grandchildren and me, cutting red string to the correct length, threading it through each bauble in turn, knotting the string and finally hanging the bauble on the tree. You have to take Christmas seriously, you know!

I’ve been to the Nativity play at my grandson’s school, seeing lots of small children dressed up as stars, others dressed as
animals and watching said small grandson trying to use his shepherd’s crook as a makeshift machine gun. I’m sure that’s not what the Christmas message is all about.

Having watched the Jesus story as seen through the eyes of 5-7 years olds (Mary didn’t so much “l
ay” the baby in the manger as swing him around and hurl him in!) I went into Manchester for what is becoming a part of our personal Christmas ritual for a friend and me.

We meet up in the late afternoo
n/early evening in Manchester, go and have an early something to eat and then head for the cathedral for the carol service which is a fundraiser for an organisation that helps people overcome addiction to alcohol and drugs. Manchester’s cathedral is quite small and intimate and looks delightful when we all sing Silent Night to the light of candles and nothing else. And my friend and I do love a good nostalgic singsong!

Of course, since then I have also been into the ritual present buying thing: what on earth can I buy for so and so? You know the kind of stressful thing I mean!

And then there’s the ritual family argument as we try to coordinate a get together for everyone without anyone feeling left out or put upon. No-one must feel obliged to do too much and no-one should have to travel further than anyone else. It is Christmas after all and there has to be fairness.

We’ve also had our Christmas crisis for this year: the central heating boiler packed up, plunging us back into our 50s/60s childhood of icy cold bedroom and the desire to stay in bed all day or at least to get dressed under bedclothes. Fortunately we found a friendly plumber who was able to restore a semblance of normality and promised to provide a more permanent solution in the New Year.

I’ve not even mentioned the weather! As usual, you just get rid of one lot of bitterly cold weather than the next lot turns up. The weathermen promised us a pattern for today: rain, turning to snow and then freezing nicely. And that is just what happened, precisely when I was going to ToysRus, one of those shops which claim to be toyshops but are really a modern version of one of the circles of hell: wall to wall toys displayed from floor to ceiling in the most unattractive way possible. Children should never be allowed in that shop. It encourages acquisitiveness without stimulating the imagination. However, today I took my courage in both hands and ventured in, having phoned in advance to check they had the item I wanted. A successful foray!

The afternoon ended well though as I went from there to Waterstone’s bookshop which does still manage to give the appearance of employing people who enjoy books and like to help you find what you are looking for. In the middle of hunting for quite specifically requested books for the granddaughters I ran into an old friend.

This is another Christmas ritual: come across each other quite accidentally and get in the way of everyone else as you spend half an hour catching up on ALL your news in the middle of the shop floor. And that is precisely what we did. Anyone would have thought we were Spanish!

Isn’t serendipity wonderful?

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Enough is enough

Hibernation is beginning to look more and more like a serious and rather attractive option. I’m not really talking about the total thing of curling up and going to sleep. No, what I mean is the idea of laying in stocks of food, reading matter and the DVDs of films and TV series you missed the first time around and sitting in a nice warm room, looking out occasionally to admire the beauty of the snowy exterior. For no matter how much the weathermen may assure us that we are due for a minor thaw, around here the Narnia-impression (always winter but never Christmas) has been going on a little too long. And besides, as far as I am concerned there really isn’t a great deal of difference between 0°, -4° and -8°. Of course, I understand that there is a serious difference but in practical terms of putting on multiple layers of clothing, stout boots, a couple of pairs of gloves (at least!) and woolly hats and scarves it’s pretty much the same.

Naturally, I have made forays into that icy exterior: the supermarket, collecting small people from school when our daughter has some vital reason for not being there and then Christmas shopping because, despite the Narnia impression, Christmas is approaching rather quickly. However, I do look forward to being able to venture out without having to go through all the wrap-up-warm procedure, if the ice and snow ever clears!

I feel very sorry for all the motorists who have been trapped in their cars up in Scotland and, according to something I read this morning, in the Paris region where the airport was once again brought to a standstill for a while. Since it was a Spanish newspaper I read this is there was, of course, a story about Spaniards suffering in this situation. A group of Spaniards was returning from Buenos Aires to Madrid, changing in Paris. Having landed safely in France they were unable to continue their onward journey because of the weather.

Their plane was constantly listed as delayed and finally, after being issued with several lots of boarding cards all to no avail, they were told that they would have to wait overnight in the terminal and fly out the next day. Now, because their plane was classified “delayed” and not “cancelled” they were not entitled to be put into a hotel for the night. Air France kindly gave them blankets to wrap themselves up in but that was it, this despite the fact that on the Air France website the plane WAS listed as cancelled. Oh, and the terminal turned the heating off!!!

Now, this was not a cheapskate budget airline from whom we might expect such shenanigans but Air France. That’s funny; I seem to remember in October of last year having a great deal of difficulty helping to sort out the return journey of a group of chess players from Vigo to Manchester, flying with … wait for it … Air France.

This morning, apparently, the intrepid and probably rather chilly Spanish travellers were issued with new boarding cards but these were pending confirmation and quite clearly labelled “not valid for embarkation”. Excuse my lack of understanding but what exactly is the point of such boarding cards?

However, all is not ice and snow everywhere. In the Faro de Vigo online I came across a video clip about Alicante. It began, “Mientras el resto de España tirita de frío, en Alicante … hace calor”. (While the rest of Spain shivers with cold, in Alicante … it’s hot.) Temperatures of 24° have encouraged people to go sunbathing, to stroll around in shorts and t-shirts and in the case of one hardy soul, to go for a quick dip. Climate change is obviously creating some very odd effects!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Snow and stuff here and there.

We’re rather picturesquely covered in snow here, although we have come off rather lightly compared to some parts of the country by all accounts. Friends in the North East report three feet of snow, which is rather a lot in my opinion. But here in Greater Manchester they have managed to keep the main roads clear and it’s still possible to get out and about.

This hasn’t prevented schools from closing however
and for a good part of the week our daughter has been dealing with the problem of not knowing which of the three schools in her life are open: the one she works at, the one her elder daughter goes to and the primary school the two younger children attend. Even the college I go to on a Thursday evening for Portuguese classes closed early last night in view of the weather conditions.

Looking at reports online I see that some of the same is going on in Galicia. The La Coruña to Santiago de Compostela road has been closed because of snow and ice, there has been snow on the walls of Lugo and in Galicia too schools have been closed. Even Vigo has had chilly weather with minimum temperatures of just below zero. That doesn’t quite compare with -11° reported by a friend in another part of Manchester this morning though.

As regards school closure, I do wonder how they get on in countries wh
ere it regularly snows a lot. Mind you, they are almost certainly equipped for it and have winter tyres on their cars and so on. We’ve got out of the habit of having such extremes of weather and just go into panic mode, especially in this age of litigation where head teachers are afraid of being sued if someone slips on an icy playground.

In the meantime, it’s very nice being a retired lady and not having to go out in the weather unless I choose to do so. It makes it a lot easier to appreciate the Christmas card prettiness of it all.

Reading comments on Facebook this morning from a young friend of mine who has been doing some interpreting on the radio in Spain, I was reminded of the funny things that happen when you go from one language to another.

When we were in Portugal recently – is it really only a few weeks ago? – we were amused to put a notice on the door of our hotel room saying, “Please may clean”. Sun umbrellas became “sun heat” and “espreguiçadeiras” was just not translated but since the notice told us, “It is not allowed to reserve espreguiçadeiras in advance by putting towels on them”, I assume they are sun loungers. Interestingly this little notice was there in French, German and English but not in the Portuguese version of the information for guests. Putting towels on sun loungers must be purely a North European habit.

But who are we to criticise the English of foreigners? This morning I came across a short item in the newspaper written by the wife of a certain well known political figure. Talking about Aung San Suu Kyi, she wrote, “It has been a privilege for my husband and I to have supported her campaign over so many years”. I’m sure it has and I fully agree with all the other comments she made. However I believe that a good number of people will agree with I that this is an incorrect use of the English language.

Even the spelling and grammar check programme on my computer wants to change it!!!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Who would be a princess?

Until the latest blast of arctic weather came along and provided lots of pictures of sheep in snow, dogs leaping in snow and cars having problems in snow, it was beginning to seem that the only thing the papers could find to alleviate the depression caused by economic news was the impending wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.

According to some newspapers, of course, we should no longer refer to that poor young lady as Kate. It would be unseemly to have a Queen Kate so she should henceforth be known as Catherine. It’s a very good job she’s not such an ordinary girl
as they like to make out. If that were the case she might not have a “Catherine” to fall back on but could have been named Kate and nothing but. Even worse, she could have had some really trendy name; she could have been Talula or Waynetta.

And then there is the matter of her hair. On the one hand she is criticised for having too “old” a hairstyle, a bit too much like her mother’s. On the other hand, it is suggested that she really needs to cut it. A queen-in-waiting cannot have lon
g flowing locks, no matter how glossy or so it seems. Now that’s funny because I do believe that the future queen of Spain has rather long hair and nobody appears to think she should cut hers short.

Poor Letizia comes in fo
r criticism from other quarters however. “¡LETIZIA REPITE MODELO! No es la primera vez.” Those were the headlines on a little article about the Princess of Asturias being seen once again in a dress she had already worn to another royal event. She was spotted at a gala dinner during a royal visit to Peru wearing the dress which she had worn to the wedding of Princess Victoria of Sweden. I would have thought she should be praised for setting such a good example during these times of austerity.

It must be hard being a princess these days; you can’t do right for trying!
Letizia has won some praise though. According to a survey carrie
d out by, an organisation that sells (probably expensive) clothes over the Internet, has put ladies in the public eye in order of elegance. Top of their list is the journalist Sara Carbonera – also described as the girlfriend of Iker Casillas the Real Madrid goalkeeper just in case readers don’t know who she is. (Ladies in the public eye, of course, are also defined by the male they are connected with!) Second comes the Princess of Asturias (well done, Letizia) and in third place is the actress Penelope Cruz – NOT described as the wife of Javier Bardem; Pé must be famous enough in her own right! Carla Bruni, although First Lady in France, is only fourth lady on this list.

I assume that the princesses, whether actual princesses, soon-to-be princesses or celebrity princesses, don't have to worry too much about keeping warm in the current plummeting temperatures but it would seem that they all have other things to worry about. It’s a hard life being a 21st century princess.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It’s raining ….. stew! And other matters.

Now, I thought that ALL Gallegos loved cocido but I may be mistaken, at least according to something I read today in La Voz de Galicia. In Avenida de la Constitución in Ribeira on Sunday someone threw a pot of cocido out of the window and into the street, much to the surprise of passersby. Personally, I am not a great fan of this dish but that seems even to me to be a rather extreme reaction.

In actual fact, I sus
pect this was not necessarily a comment on the cooking since it would seem that people in that block have been complaining for a while because some so far unidentified resident has been throwing paper wrappings, the shells from nuts and sunflower seeds and even wine cartons in large quantities into the street on a fairly regular basis. So far nobody has been hurt by these flying objects but neither have they managed to catch anyone in the act. It’s rather like a return to the middle ages when people would call out from upper storey windows when they planned to throw a whole range of stuff out into the street below. And I don’t think that any striking dustbinmen can be blamed for this.

Strikes, however, are apparently due to take place in Portugal tomorrow where there has been a call for a general strike to protest against the whole economic situation. And for once actions in Portugal have rebounded favourably, albeit in a small way, on Galician airports; well, Vigo’s Peinador at any rate. Arsenal have a football match today against Sporting de Braga – yes, in Portugal. However, mindful of the threat of a general strike tomorrow and fearful of finding themselves trapped in Portugal they opted to fly into Vigo yesterday evening instead of into Porto. A fleet of buses took them to Braga and presumably will return them to Vigo for the return journey. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.

And now that the wind and storms are over for a while in Galicia (are they over?) they have started fishing for centolla (translated variously as king crab or spider crab but either way a favourite shellfish of the people of Galicia). Unfortunately it would seem that the waters are too calm after the bad weather and the harvest has been poor. Last year at the start of the centolla season they auctioned off some 11 ton s of this crustacean but this year they have only had 5 or 6 tons. In O Grove, described as uno de los puertos más importantes de Galicia para el rey del marisco, they reckon to be down about 50% on last year with an inevitable hike in prices. Oh dear, what are the crab lovers to do? But maybe some of them have brought it upon themselves. Another suggested reason for the shortage is illegal fishing that took place during the closed season!!!!

Finally, a little language note. Skimming through Spanish newspapers online I came across a list of blogs linked, I think, to El País. Amongst them was one by a certain Francesc Pumarola. It’s name? Gugleando por la red – googling along the net. I suppose it was only a matter of time until “to Google” turned into a Spanish verb “googlear” and then adapted its spelling to Castellano rules, becoming “guglear”. Isn’t language development fun?

Monday, 22 November 2010

On weather, bills, paint sprays and the web.

My young friend Craig commented to me on Facebook that it was time I did another blogpost ¿no? Well, yes, I suppose it is. Apologies to any other disappointed readers. For the last week and a bit I have been nursing my second cold since returning to the UK. This one arrived about three days after my return from Figueira da Foz in Portugal and refuses to leave. Two years in Spain without so much as a sniffle (even through the sogginess of last winter in Galicia) but three months back in the UK and I’ve had two sessions of coughing and sneezing. Extremely tenacious these UK germs, that’s all I can say!

I can’t really complain about
the weather, however. Even though it has been cold, far colder than I have grown used to, we have had quite a lot of those bright, crisp autumn days when you can wrap up and go for long walks. I understand that a good deal of Galicia, by contrast, has been suffering from heavy rain and high winds. It sounds a little like last year at this time.

And th
en this morning I read about an unusual victim of the bad weather over there. A resident of Cangas, across the bay from where we used to live in Vigo, was putting his car in the garage when he saw in the headlights a large bird. This turned out to be a buzzard, known in Spain as an aguila ratonera – a mouse catching eagle - which seems to me to be a much more romantic sounding name than buzzard. Be that as it may, the car driver concerned sent for Protección Civil who came and collected the exhausted and rather frightened bird. They reckoned it was probably worn out by getting around in the bad weather and was simply too tired to fly and had taken refugein the garage. So they kept him overnight, fed him up and let him go. Another happy ending!

Another story bought to a conclusion is the one I mentioned rece
ntly of the crafty restaurant-bill-dodger in London. It appears that last Monday they arrested a certain Janis Londis, a Latvian, who was caught as he tried to dodge a £1000 bill at yet another posh nosh venue, this time in St James’s Street. His lawyer has said that he was trying to impress a girl. The journalist reporting the arrest seemed rather sceptical of this idea, suggesting that a girl would not be very impressed by having to wear her best trainers along with her posh frock in order to make a quick getaway. However, I have read about a condition called hybristophilia, also known as Bonnie and Clyde syndrome, where the person with the condition gets a kick out of being around someone who commits crimes – ok, usually violent as in the Bonnie and Clyde story but maybe this is a new version: gastronomic hybristophilia!!

I don't know what kind of kick people get out of daubing statues with pink paint, as happened recently to the statue of the writer Valle-Inclán in Pontevedra. Daubing politically significant statues is understandable but I’m not sure what is intended in this case. Of course, it may be that the perpetrator knows that a friend of mine uses a photo of this statue as his Facebook picture and is making a little protest at that.

Facebook leads me to Internet which leads me to the language of the net. This morning’s El País comments on the fact that the hold the English language has over the internet i
s slipping. It has gone from a 74% share to a 45% share in the last 10 years, although it’s still in pole position. Now, the headline to the article, “EL INGLÉS SE DESPEÑA EN INTERNET, EL ESPAÑOL SUBE”, implies that Spanish is perhaps replacing it. Not so; Spanish has gone up from a 3% to a 4% share, but still remains in third place, after French and Germany (= second) and ahead of Italy.

The “decline” of English is down to the increase of Chinese, Arabic and Russian on the web. All this has little to do with the number of speakers of a particular language but reflects the number of pages in the language which appear on the web. The report on which this article i
s based was compiled by the Fundación Telefónica and edited by the Instituto Cervantes. One of their conclusions is that if the Latin-American speaking countries had the same level of IT development as English speaking countries, then Castellano would have a 16% share of the web. It’s just taking time but they’ll get there eventually.

Finally the article was accompanied by a rather delightful picture of the headquarters of the Instituto Cervantes showered with sort of tickertape strings of words! I just wanted to share that with you.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Paying the price.

Here we are back in the Northwest of England where we have been having our own bits of interesting weather. Getting back into my routine, I went off the Manchester last Thursday evening for my Portuguese class and came out to find that the weather pattern had changed completely while I was inside. Calm and a bit chilly when I went in had changed to a howling gale three hours later. Manchester’s enormously tall Hilton Tower was whistling nicely, making it sound as though the city was on alert for a nuclear attack. Was blown across the city to catch my bus and then sat in our local bus station waiting for my connection, wondering if the modern glass and metal structure was about to fall down around my ears.

I made it safely to my home bus stop however and then saw the most spectacular bit of weather effects. As I went past the end of local side road a car turn up the road and in its headlights I could see that one of the huge old trees had been blown down, crushing the bonnet of someone’s car in the process. In the relative calm of the following morning I went back for a second look, just to make sure I had not dreamt it. There was even a report on the TV with a local resident suggesting that maybe part of the price we pay for living in what she called a “wooded area” is that sometimes trees do get blown over.

On the subject of cost, I have been known on occasion to complain about the price of eating out in the UK. Well, after reading an article in this morning’s Guardian I realise that I may have to reassess the situation.

The article was not about restaurant prices but about a sting carried out by a young couple in London. It seems that they reserved a table at a rather classy restaurant and happily ate their way through three courses and drank a bottle of pink champagne and another of good wine, a 1997 Bollinger - £285. At some point they asked for their coats so that they could step outside and smoke a cigarette … and never went back, leaving their uneaten dessert on the table and, oh yes, an unpaid bill for £572.74.

Now that really is a rather steep bill for just two people, even taking into account that just over £400 went on booze. Never again can I seriously say that the kind of eating out that we do here is too expensive!

The restaurateurs did say that such a bill is not even terribly excessive for their establishment. Some people regularly spend a good deal more.

The young couple clearly put on a good act; they were describes as looking like “a very genuine, very lovely couple. Their bill was an average spend.” And now the police are examining other such cases in similar restaurants in London. It is quite possible that they do this on a regular basis, trying out different posh nosh venues for free.

The young couple booked the restaurant in the name of Lupin, clearly relating themselves to the French fictional thief Arsène Lupin. Classy thieves, these two!

It was interesting that the restaurant people expressed concern at their lack of consideration for the waiters. One of them commented, “They are forgetting that they are really attacking the waiters, who don’t have an enormous income.”

Now, it would seem to me that if you have a restaurant where a bill of £572.74 is considered “average”, you could maybe afford to pay your waiters a decent wage.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Oh, the joy of travel!!

On Tuesday morning we took the next step of our journey homewards. We admired the smooth efficiency of the Porto metro service and went through security at Porto airport and eventually joined the queue of people waiting at gate 10 for the Easyjet flight to London. As large numbers of us stood in the queue – and we were not the first to join it – we noticed a gentleman with a completely laid back attitude to budget travel: clearly a man without stress!

As the plane began its final descent
towards London, we cleverly bought tickets on board for the so-called Gatwick express to London Victoria. I say “so-called” with a reason. From the platform where we waited for the 5.35 train I phoned our son to let him know our estimated time of arrival. The train arrived. We all got on, stowed our cases and settled down. Some minutes later people started to get off again and the message gradually filtered through that this particular train was going nowhere.

Another train pulled in to an adjacent platform and everyone moved across. This would be the 5.50 train. A certain amount of chaos ensued as people with cases got off and tried to make their way into the airport and other people with suitcases tried to get onto the train. All was well … for a while. Then we discovered that this train was not going to Victoria either; it was heading for a siding, after which the 5.50 train would come in and we could all get on our way. This did not happen.

Instead there came an announcement that the 6.05 train would depart form a completely different platform and so the by now much larger group of people with suitcases moved en masses through the station and got on the train, which was indeed the 6.05 and did indeed depart. The public address system welcomed us aboard in several languages and informed us that the journey would take 30 minutes.

Just over an hour later we got off the train in Victoria. Signalling problems. So much for the Gatwick “Express”!!!

Were we downhearted? Not at all!

We did a short and fortunately uneventful journey on the underground, met a partially frozen son and daughter in law (they had taken refuge in a nearby pub but were still a little chilled) and went and ate very good Italian food. A pleasant end to a rather frustrating evening.

Wednesday dawned cold and clear and we set off to meet more frustration on our homeward trek. At Euston Station we found the ticket machines where travellers collect pre-booked tickets for Virgin trains. Following instructions we inserted the credit card we had used for the booking and entered the code number sent to us by email. Your tickets are being printed, said the machine and duly spat out ONE incorrect ticket, somebody else’s day saver ticket. When we tried again the machine refused to recognise our unique code number.

So we sought help and were told by a rather condescending ticket sales-lady that we could ask at another desk if our tickets had been handed in (according to her computer they HAD been printed) and if not, well, we would just have to buy new tickets. After a minor explosion of indignation we did just that and were met first with incomprehension and eventually with a rather reluctant acceptance that they needed to sort it out.
Some fifteen minutes later, and after we had watched someone else have the same problem, someone came and asked us which ticket machine we had used and finally produced out tickets.

The original condescending ticket sales-lady gave us a little lecture (in equally condescending tone) on how lucky we were and told us that someone had handed our tickets in, (presumably when they were printed instead of his tickets) thus saving us from paying another £60 each. One thing I would like to know is this: if they were handed in so quickly, why did it take them so long to locate them? There was no real acceptance that perhaps their machine was faulty. Neither did we really get an apology. So much for the efficiency of Virgin travel services!!

However the rest of the journey was relatively stress free and we made it home without further incident – if you discount a near argument with another passenger over luggage stowing!

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Leaving Portugal

We arrived at Figueira da Foz in windy wet weather and we left in the same. So wet and windy that we decided to forego a last walk along the promenade and just get on our way.

Before that though, the previous evening, there had been the closing ceremo
ny with yet more speeches saying thank you to various people and lots of prizes given out, all the trophies designed by a local artist. Very impressive.

Our friend Kevin
Spraggett got a prize and the ever helpful Paula, one of the organisers, got a special large award of her own.

And so we said goodbye to the Casino where the chess congress had been held and goodbye to Figueira da Foz (until next year perhaps) and did the train journey back to Porto: slow train to Coimbra, 35 minutes wait in the station, very fast train to Porto Campanhá.

As we left Coimbra the train information board told us that the exterior temperature was 18°. Not bad for a wet and windy day. H
owever, as we headed north the temperature got progressively lower until it was registering around 11° by the time we reached Porto. And then it got even colder as the evening went on. It’s amazing how quickly you adapt to being warm; I’m no longer ready for these cold evenings and mornings!!!

Our Porto hotel charges for internet – this must be a Portuguese practice and a very inconvenient one at that – so we headed out to find an internet café, fortunately just around the corner.

There we picked up a free newspaper in which I found this photo which I include especially for my friend Colin. In his blog, Colin has wri
tten at some length about the new motorway toll system the Portuguese have introduced in the north of their country. He is not alone in complaining, it would seem. Someone stuck up this poster on the slip road onto the A29: "smile, you are being robbed!" The authorities were clearly not pleased. Shortly after the newspaper photographer took the picture the poster was removed.

Today we are off to the airport to fly to London and then, after a night visiting offspring number one, it’s back to Greater Manchester. I understand that the cold weather has hit the UK as well: snow in Cumbria already! Time to plan the next adventure!

Sunday, 7 November 2010

In Portugal – 6

Saturday was a day of surprises. I went out for a stroll after breakfast, leaving the chess player busy analysing and planning moves for later in the day. My objective was the bishop’s palace, which I have still not seen as I was waylaid by other things.

headed across town, through the park and over towards the estuary. On my way I came into the Jardim Municipal, a kind of garden square which I have been through before. This time it was full of stalls of all kinds. A flea market was underway. In the sunlight, for it was a very bright sunny day once again, it reminded me of the scene from the film "Empire of the Sun" where Jim arrives at a sports stadium full of looted goods that have been abandoned by the retreating Japanese, spread out sparkling in the sun.

Here in the Jardim M
unicipal there was everything you could think of: pottery, bric-a-brac, statues, garden equipment, second book, jewellery, stamps, musical instruments, tools – some old and rusty, others pristine – and even an old treadle sewing machine like the one my grandmother had, this one in apparently perfect condition.

So instead of visiting the bishop’s palace, I wandered around looking at the stuff on the stalls until I realise that it was almost lunchtime and headed back to get the chess player organised.

Our plan was to find t
he Dory Negro restaurant that we had failed to locate the other day. We knew which road it was on but, typically, the road was not named on the map the tourist office had provided or, when we eventually found it, on the road itself. Having walked up and down the main street we asked for directions.

Two very helpful ladies gave us detailed and possibly contradictory di
rections. Finally one said that she feared that the Dory Negro might be closed for holidays – Está em feiras – but, ever helpful, they gave us directions to another restaurant nearby which they highly recommended. Unfortunately they never gave us the name and by the time we had ascertained that the Dory Negro was indeed closed for holidays we had, of course, completely forgotten the directions to the other restaurant.

Nothing daunted, we asked in a newspaper kios
k if they knew of a good restaurant nearby. At first the newsvendor was directing us back to the Avenida, the main seafront road where there are lots of pizza places. Just them one of her customers butted in with information about O Aquario, 500 metres (translated by his friend into 500 feet!!) up the road. So we set off up the hill and had just asked for further directions from more helpful, friendly passers-by when our original informant passed us in his van, pipping and waving and indication the restaurant, now in sight on the corner.

what a delightful little restaurant it was, moderately full of Portuguese families having Saturday lunch out. And the food was good as well (sorry Colin!!) and, as seems to be usual here, very prettily presented.

Then we had a little emergency. As Phil tucked into
corvina grelhada he managed to swallow a sharp bone and get it stuck in his throat. There then ensued an episode of coughing, patting on the back, eating lots of bread – grandmothers’ remedy to coat the bone in bread and help it down – and drinking lots of water: all to no avail. Eventually it seemed to have made its way down sufficiently to allow him to continue eating. So, moment of high drama over, we finished our meal and went back to the hotel.

An hour or so later, however, he was still conscious of “something” there at the back of his throat and so we ended us getting a taxi to the hospital and waiting around for quite along time to have somebody take a look. The final diagnosis was that a espinha had probably gone down but had most likely made what the doctor, whose English was mostly good, described as a “hound” on the inside of his throat. We worked out that he meant a wound and waited until later to make jokes about the animal at the back of Phil’s throat – not a frog but a dog!!! Anti-inflammatories and mouthwash were prescribed and we were told to return if it did not improve.

It seems that some people will do anything to get a little attention!! And attention he HAS received. From the hospital we had phoned the organiser of the tournament, someone Phil had played chess against in Spain, to let him know that Phil would almost certainly miss last night’s game, which proved to be the case. So this morning we have had a series of enquiries as to his state of health and much commiseration on his bad luck.

As for me, I really wanted to practise my Portuguese but probably not in such extreme circumstances!!

Friday, 5 November 2010

In Portugal – 5

As the week has gone by here in Figueira da Foz we have been finding little ways of improving breakfast. When we arrived the hotel was full of teenagers bouncing with health: at least a couple of basketball teams here for some kind of convention. Consequently breakfast was a very busy affair with crowds of people and some difficulty in finding a table. But, it has to be said, the coffee they served from one of those automatic machines was truly execrable.

Well, on
Wednesday we went down for breakfast a little on the last minute and found that the big dining area where breakfast had been served was completely empty. Rather concerned, I checked the time. It was still 10 minutes before the end of the breakfast-serving period, so what was going on? Eventually I located another, smaller breakfast room around a corner. The same automatic machines served the same execrable coffee. It was only as we left the room that we noticed another machine, an espresso machine of some kind, one of those that work with sachets that have to be introduced. So on Thursday we investigated and managed to get a decent cup of coffee at last. We then discovered that this new breakfast room also has a toaster, so toast is available as well. By the time we leave we might know how everything works.

Yeterday the fishermen were out on the beach as I strolled along in the autumn sunshine once more. This time I went all the way along to the estuary and came off the beach at the Forte de Santa Catarina. This is much more of a fortress than the one I managed to walk past at Buarcos. Built at the end of the 16th century it formed part of a defensive triangle protecting the estuary and the town.

The gate was open so I went in to have a look round and climbed the steps to the lighthouse. There I met a group of gentlemen who told me, Discuple, vamos fechar – sorry we’re closing. The interior didn’t really have a lot to see, so I went and walked around the outside, which is rather more impressive.

From there I walked up the road that skirts the estuary on the lookout for something of interest. There was the port and a good view of the bridge over the river, rather a fine construction. And then I saw the market. From the front it was nothing special, although the side entrance was more impressive.

But inside it was a riot of colour, a really good old fashioned market hall with fish stalls, vegetable stalls, flower stalls, a butc
hers’ section, one corner that sold masses of football related paraphernalia and all around the edge cafes, shoe shops, clothing stalls and the inevitable souvenir and toy stalls that in my unkinder moments I refer to as tat stalls. Quite magical and well worth a visit.

The bishop’s palace, which I had spotted on the
map, can wait for another day.

End note: my friend Colin asked me not to talk too much about food as he is on a restricted diet at present. So outof respect for h
is delicate condition, instead of describing what we ate, I’ll just show you a photo of yesterday’s lunch. Delicious.

And tomorrow, tales of fishbones and other adventures!!!

Thursday, 4 November 2010

In Portugal – 4

I went on just a little yesterday about similarities between Portugal and Spain. Well, how about this one?

This is a round building. They may call it a Coliseu but it looks a lot like a bullring to me. It even has one door marked “Sol” and another marked “Sombra”. Enough said.

This morning I went exploring around the Palacio Sotto Mayor, built at the start of the 20th century for Joachim Sotto Mayor, a local dignitary, I presume. It is described as a luxurious French style house with a magnificent façade, set in beautiful grounds. I can vouch for that but not for the excellent furniture and art works that are supposed to be inside it. There was a notice saying, Museu encerrado ao publico: not just closed but locked up!!! Still the outside was worth seeing, looking rather fine in the morning sunshine and there were lizards running about: rather a surprise for November!

Later we went out for lunch with a certain Mr Kevin Spraggett who has been a kind of pen friend / electronic friend of my husband for a while now. They may have actually met years ago at a chess tournament in the Isle of Man of all places but neither has a very clear memory of that. Kevin writes a chess blog which my Phil started to read on a regular basis while we were in Vigo. As Kevin doesn’t just write about chess but includes all sorts of other random odds and ends (including on one occasion a bit of MY blog – very flattering!), from time to time Phil points out things of interest to me.

Kevin is a chess Grandmaster who hails from Montreal in Canada originally but ended up married to a Portuguese lady chess player and has lived in Portugal for about 20 years now and plans to stay. As we knew he was playing here in Figueira da Foz, we looked forward to meeting him in person. So today we strolled along the sea front, stopping for coffee and then beer along the way and sitting and chatting in the sunshine. That was when I had a little trip down memory lane as this rather fine specimen of the classic Citroen DS came and parked nearby. I can remember friends of mine driving cars like this back in the 1970s.

This must be my week for automobile nostalgia as just yesterday I saw what looked a lot like my very first ever car, a red Citroen 2CV. There it was, bold as you like and still looking cute and cheeky, sitting on a car park. Well, I had to go and check the number plate to make sure!

Anyway, nostalgia out of the way, we went on and had another fine lunch, this time at a place called Restaurante Pica Pica. This restaurant advertises itself as serving Cañas y Tapas and has a list of Spanish tapas outside. The lentil and chorizo soup they served for first course could well have been a Spanish dish but the peizinhos fritos I had were served with very Portuguese rice and beans and a generous helping of salad. Phil had grilled fish, once again unidentified – I swear they eat fish in Portugal and Spain that they have never heard of in the UK. All good stuff, washed down with a nice glass or two of white wine: vinho branco da casa.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

In Portugal – 3

Sunshine in Figueira all day yesterday and today. Tomorrow the sun is forecast to shine again with minimum temperature 15° and maximum 24°. You can’t complain about that. I have even walked barefoot on the sand.

Yesterday we
walked along the promenade to nearby Buarcos. On the map it’s supposed to be the next small town down the coast but in reality it is just an extension of Figueira itself. We were looking for o castelo, the castle. We saw the signs for it, followed them and then walked past it without realising we had done so. On reflection, of course, the huge wall we walked past was what remained of the fortaleza. It’s just that there was no kind of notice saying “You have arrived at the castle” or anything like that. I also realised that this castelo was what I had seen in an old photograph on the wall of the restaurant Forte Santa Catarina, except that in that photo the beach went all the way up to the walls.

Now there is a fairly fast coast road, piles of rocks shoring up the seawards side and a variety of little cafes and ice cream sellers closer to the beach. The main bit of Buarcos, however, looks as though it’s not changed a great deal over the years. The houses look much the same as they did in that photo I saw, just slightly modernised and nicely maintained. On either side – the Figueira side and then beyond Buarcos in the opposite direction – high rise blocks have sprung up, to nothing like the extent of what has happened on the Spanish costas but still fairly tall modern buildings. Central Buarcos by contrast seems relatively unspoilt.

Just before the spot where th
e more modern building starts is the cemetery, undoubtedly marking what used to be the edge of town. Little old ladies were returning from the cemetery: black skirts, black stockings, black shawls, like characters from another age or extras from an Almodóvar film. Maybe they had not finished cleaning up the family graves on All Saints Day and needed a little extra time.

Just next door to the cemetery we found Lidl and, not having yet found a small supermarket open, we popped in to replenish the chessplayer’s supplies of chocolate and stock of paper handkerchiefs and a few other things. I had been looking forward to shopping somewhere a little less impersonal to try out my Portuguese again, but you can’t have everything. It’s a little odd for me to be in a country where I don’t have complete mastery of the language, especially one which in so many ways is similar to Spain, where I feel completely at home.

And in
some ways it is just the same. On Sunday and Monday, those days being part of the ponte/puente for All Saints, there were the same stalls set up on street corners selling sugar-filled “treats” for children to pester their parents about: the same donuts, packets of soggy popcorn, chupa chup lollies and such. On the corner near the casino where the chess tournament is going on there is a little stall selling roasted chestnuts, just like there is on Príncipe, back in Vigo; it’s that time of year again. There’s even an obligatory beggar hanging around outside the casino, sidling up to passersby with his had extended.

e even found a fishermen’s statue to remind me of the one at the bottom of Vigo’s Gran Vía. And you can buy your stamps in tobacconists just as in Spain and France. They do have these red pillar boxes for posting your letters into though!

And then the written language is so much like Spanish that I have no difficulty with most of the notices. Consequently it’s something of a trial to have to stop and think about what I want to say when I buy something, order a meal or ask my way around. It reminds me of those long distance phone calls you used to make where you said your bit and then waited just long enough to be aware of a pause before the reply came through
. That’s what my Portuguese is like: I listen, my brain processes it and eventually the reply comes out.

But I am making progress and manage to make myself understood and in return understand about half of what is said to me. Most importantly, I am managing to order food and drink.

Yesterday we went for lunch to a restaurant called Núcleo Sportinguista de Figueira. It’s a bright and airy glass and metal structure at the front of a kind of sports club with metal tables and chairs set in rows, almost like a canteen. Service is brisk but friendly. The main thing about this place is that it offers the possibility to eat as much as you can for €7.50.

The price includes starters, main courses and fruit but not dessert of any other kind, drinks or coffee. So no worries about being overcharged for what they put on the table when you sit down; that’s your starter, in this case salad and a dish with beans and some kind of cold fish. They have a list of dishes they regularly serve but not all are available every day. We fancied
arroz com mariscos (shellfish rice) and grilled sea bream, neither of which was being served yesterday. So instead we went for lulas, translated as squid but in this case "baby" squid, what the Spanish call chipirones, and arroz de polvo (rice with octopus). Huge amounts of both of these arrived and we were quite happy with them. I’m not at all sure how anyone could eat more than one dish; you would have to be very hungry or very greedy.

When the bill arrived it was for the grand total of €18, that’s €15 for the food and the rest was for wine, water and coffee. So they are not putting a huge mark-up on drinks either. A half bottle of very acceptable wine cost us €1.50. Very good value indeed.

And then today we located one that was recommended on a website:
A Gaivota – the seagull. (Linguistic note: I have been heard to say rather facetiously that Gallego is a little like dyslexic Spanish. The same seems to apply to Portuguese; the seagull in Castellano is la gaviota. Just shuffle the letters around!) It was in a back street fairly close to the estuary, just a small place with check tablecloths and a fair number of obviously local people eating there – always a good sign.

Their menu offered a choice of
panadinho de frango or some kind of fish whose name I could not even read. The first was clearly something with chicken but there was none left, so we never found out exactly what and opted instead for the unidentified grilled fish. This was very acceptable, served up with boiled potatoes (are we back in Galicia?) and salad and with a small side dish of herby sauce to put on the fish. This time we ventured into the home-made desserts as well: doce da casa for me – something pleasant with cold custard and meringue - and tarta de something for Phil, a sort of cheesecake again featuring meringue. It was all very good and came to a grand total of €13, including coffee. Extremely good value and the owner/waitress was very friendly.

So that’s another couple of the restaurants on our list ticked off. We should have managed all of them, and a few that don’t appear there as well, by the end of the week.

Last note: walking back form the chess venue this evening (current score 2 out of 4) I saw a notice in a small take-away restaurant. It said
Domingo: Cozido à portuguesa. Now if that’s not cocido – Galician pork and greens stew - I’ll eat my hat! Did I mention that there are rather a lot of similarities?