Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Only in Spain!

So, what do my sister and President Obama have in common? Both of them are afraid of being trapped here because of the new ash cloud. In actual fact, it looks as though there won’t be a problem. The cloud is said to be moving on to Germany where they are busy closing airports today. But you never know; volcanoes are a bit unpredictable, after all.

My sister is here for an Eric Clapton concert in London and has taken the opportunity to visit family en route. This has lead to a rather roundabout journey: plane from Seville to Liverpool, car to Southport (to see my
other sister), train to Greenfield and bus to Delph (to see us), bus to Manchester, train to London (I made sure she and her husband got on it this morning) and finally plain from London to Seville.

They have to back home in time for the 1st of June at the latest. Otherwis
e they wouldn’t be worried about ash clouds causing delays; they’d just stay a little longer. However, her Spanish husband took early retirement last year and because of this his pension is currently paid partly by his employer (essentially the Spanish state as he was a funcionario) and partly by Social Security. As a result he has to go and sign on the dole every three months until he reaches proper retirement age, whatever that is these days. There must be an easier way of doing things!

Before they came to England, my sister investigated getting them both European Health Cards. She had no problem doing this for herself over the internet but for her Spanish hubby they had to report to the Social Security offices. Once again, the problem was that he is an early retiree. This time it meant that he could not actually have a European Health Card but a bit of paper covering him for possible health problems while out of Spain. However, he was told that he was only covered for two weeks and should/could not remain out of the country for a longe
r time. When did this kind of restriction come into force?

While I’m on the subject
of strange Spanish ways, here’s a link to a website I discovered. Since smoking restrictions came into force in Spanish bars and restaurants, there are smokers who desperately need to know which places have a separate smoking section and this website, AquíSí puedes fumar, lets you know this. Only in Spain!!

My “Spanish” sister was quite vociferously against banning all sorts of things, including bullfighting. S
he feels that people should have the choice. All well and good, but I don’t choose to have my lungs filled with cigarette smoke and I don’t suppose bulls choose to be prodded, poked and finally polished off in the bullring.

So, here are some pictures of Las Arenas,
the old bullring in Barcelona which has been converted into a shopping and leisure centre with magnificent views of the Catalan capital from the top of the building. Now, that seems like a good way to preserve and old monument without having to maintain a tradition which really has little to do with the 21st century!

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Out and about

I have recently taken to going into Manchester by bus and train rather than by going all the way by bus. The journey is only slightly quicker but on the whole a good deal more pleasant. I catch a bus from our crossroads to Greenfield station although on occasion I walk some or all of the way; it’s a 45 minute walk if you go all the way on foot so it has to be a day when I’m not pressed for time. There is a bit of a wait at the railway station but this is just as well given the unreliability of our local bus service. My bus can be up to 10 minutes late (and sometimes is) without causing me to miss the train. If the bus is on time and it’s a fine day, I get off the bus a couple of stops before the station and walk the rest of the way.

Unlike the bus station, the railway station is not a bad place to wait. The bus station in the town centre is a modern glass and steel construction, extremely draughty and, as I have said before, full of people who are trying to ignore the announcements that this bus station is a no-smoking area. It would seem that you get a better class of travellers at the railway station or at least fewer smokers. Those who do smoke retreat into a little smoking shelter at one end of the platform.

Otherwise, it’s just a nice clean little station. On a fine day you can sit in the sunshine and if it rains there is a covered area all the passengers can squeeze in

What’s more, I can travel on the local train on my bus pass. The joys of free public transport!
Whereas the bus brings me into Manchester at Piccadilly Gardens, which h
ave been “modernised” into a rather bland if not actually ugly square, in my opinion anyway, the train arrives at Victoria Station. Now, this station has been described as one of the ugliest in Britain and I have to say that whoever assessed it is probably correct. It really needs a bit of care and attention. In the daytime it’s dingy but at night it’s gloomy, dark and rather threatening.

, the exterior of the station is worth a look with its old glass and wrought iron veranda, proudly boasting the destinations you can get to from there: Southport, Scarborough, Blackpool, Belgium. Belgium??? Probably not any longer or at least not very directly.

And arriving at Victoria does mean that I get to walk past the cathedral and through some nice bits of old Manchester. You also walk through the large open area in front of Chetham’s School of Music, a specialist music school in the city centre and a building worth looking at. You just have to ignore the rather naff water feature which runs through the square.

Early evening yesterday, as on many a sunny evening, the square was full of boys – no, young men – honing their skate-boarding skills.

What is it with young men and skateboards?
Do they not grow out of them? Apparently not, judging by the numbers I see trying to execute fancy jumps and turns in any open place available. You don’t see young women practising complicated skipping games, seeing who can “run in” without disturbing the rhythm of the turning rope. Neither do you see them playing the strange game which involves attaching lots of elastic bands together to form a long stretchy rope which two girls hold around their ankles while others carry out fancy manoeuvres jumping in and out and through. And you don’t find pairs of girls trying to do intricate cats’ cradle patterns with lengths of string. No, on the whole we have moved on. Young women who want to get involved in sports activities are more likely to be jogging or off to the gym. But the male of the species still likes to play with the skateboard. I fail to understand it.

However, the square was very pleasant in the sunshine and there were lots of people sitting outside the old Shambles pub. Manchester can be delightful!

I was on my way to the Royal Northern College of Music to a fado concert with Mariza, the Portuguese singe
r. So I had a fair trek across Manchester to the concert venue but was worth it. I discovered Mariza a few years ago on television when she was featured in the Cambridge Folk Festival. Her dramatic performance captured me immediately and I went out and bought a CD. I find myself singing along in Spanish to her Portuguese songs or poems, as she insists on calling them. She has a perfect right to do so as many of her songs are poems set to music but even new songs written for her by one of her musicians are referred to as poems.

When I booked my
ticket for the concert there were no seats left in the main theatre area; all that was left were seats in the “pit”. So that’s where I went and I found myself on the very front row, right up by the stage. The only way to get closer would have been to be seated at one of the tables on the stage itself. Someone suggested the people seated there might be students from the College of Music but judging by the age range I don’t think that was the case. I wonder how they were selected.

The aim was to rec
reate “Mariza’s Taverna”, with tables in a semi-circle at the back and seats for the guitar players in front of them. Eventually Mariza arrived, quite tall and made taller by high-heeled shoes, very dramatic in a long black dress, all net and ruffles and long lace sleeves. Her hair is still worn very short, white blonde and plastered to her head. Her face seems all cheekbones and dark eyes but when she sings her mouth is unbelievably expressive.

She sang songs I recognised and some I had never heard before, some sad, some happy, all full of emotion. The song which she told
us was her favourite fado was the first song I ever heard her sing, Primavera, a song about lost love, inevitably!

She had the audience joining in and, not satisfied with the singing, got down close and personal, into the audience after she had mana
ged to persuade the staff to help her find a way down. At this point she gently told off a fan who used flash (not me, I hasten to add), explaining that in the dark of the theatre the sudden flash effectively blinds her, even onstage. So, no flash.

She ended the concert by telling us that we were now part of “a minha gente” – my people. When she started her singing career, “a minha
gente” were the people of Portugal and particularly of her own town but she now includes all those who make an effort to understand and share her Portuguese culture. And then she sang for us as she said she would have sung in her taverna; without microphones or amplifiers for herself or her musicians. She opened her mouth and filled the concert hall with her song. Simply astounding!

Tuesday, 10 May 2011


Today we received this postcard.

Our son and his good lady sent it to us while they were on honeymoon. Th
e postcard was selected because his father is a rather more than fanatical chess player. Strangely enough, in the gardens of the hotel where the boy got married there was also a giant chess set. Odd!

Of course the boy and his lady were back from honeymoon well before the p
ostcard arrived. This is what happens when you go off to the other side of the world.

Now this honeymoon itself was rather late. The boy and his lady were married in September but postponed the real honeymoon until March. If you’re going to combine a honeymoon in faraway places with a visit to members of the bride’s distant family, you need time to do it properly. So in September they had a quick week in Portugal and put off the honeymoon proper until later.

Clearly our boy and his missis have set a precedent because it has just been announced in today’s news that Prince William and his lady (do we now call her Princess Catherine or Princess Kate or Your Highness the Duchess of Cambridge or what?) have finally set off on their honeymoon. They too waited until the right time to go away, probably in their case as a way of avoiding paparazzi!

Anyway it’s always good to have things to look forward to.

I have recently managed to book tickets to see various singers in concert. The first is tomorrow evening: Mariza, a Portuguese singer. I’m going to that one alone as she sings fado, traditional Portuguese music which my husband says he has to be “in the mood for”, rather like Spanish flamenco. I can see his point but I like Mariza and her rather dramatic presentation.

Later in the week we will go together to see Loudon Wainwright III. Younger friends have usually not heard of him and need to be told that he is the father of Rufus Wainwright and Martha Wainwright but for us it’s the other way around: Rufus and Martha are the children of Loudon.

And then at the end of the month we are off the see K. D. Lang, an old favourite of mine and whose songs my husband is fortunately usually in the mood for.

So, things to look forward to.

On a different note altogether, I am glad I don’t have to look forward to applying to university at the moment. It’s already hard enough for students to face the increasing cost of going to university along with the fierce competition to get a place at a really good one. Now it seems that plans are afoot to allow some of the most select (and selective) universities to offer extra places to those students whose families can pay upfront. These places will cost substantially more than the usual places and the applicants will have to renounce the right to take out student loans.

Apparently this will “free up” places at top universities, making it more possible for less financially advantaged students to attend those institutions. And the high-fee paying, no-loan student still have to achieve the high grades in order to earn a place on the courses.

However, it still has me wondering about the rights and wrongs of such a scheme. Might we not be creating a two-tier system? Am I too idealistic in thinking that this level of education should be available to everyone who makes the grade, or should I say makes the A-Level grades?

Once again I find myself glad to have been born a baby-boomer. Life was so much simpler then!

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Pond life

Earlier this evening my daughter and I went swimming. This is a regular Tuesday evening activity. We park the children with granddad for a little bit of grandfatherly bonding and go off and swim up and down the local pool. She usually does a lot more lengths than I do as she is a much more proficient swimmer than I am, faster, able to do a variety of strokes and so on. I just plod up and down doing a very pedestrian breast stoke, the only way I know how to swim.

Sometimes the pool is relatively empty but tonight it was just a little overcrowded and as I dodged out of the way of other swimmers I found myself inventing categories of swimmers in my head.

There are the sharks; these super fast, super selfish swimmers plough up and down the pool quite heedless of other pool users. This clearly THEIR pool and they ruthlessly drive others out of their path. You are in serious danger of being pulled into the undertow and possibly getting eaten into the bargain.

Then you have the blind cave fish; these are fairly docile slow swimmers but, like the sharks, they are oblivious to all other swimmers. They simply don’t seem to realise anyone else is there until they bump into them. You have to swim around them as they are unable to swim round you.

The octopus is an interesting phenomenon. This is made up of two, three or even four swimmers, usually female, who stop half way up the pool and get in a huddle to talk about some obviously important matter. They have a prodigious number of arms and legs threshing about and getting in everyone’s way.

Quite harmless are the limpets. They tend to swim to one end and then cling to that point for a while before swimming to the other end to cling on there for a while longer.

The dolphins are people like my daughter: proficient swimmers who go up and down the pool sensibly and considerately. If they splash you, you can guarantee they do it on purpose and usually playfully. My dolphin daughter, however, has been known to kick extra hard and create lots of splashy waves as she goes past octopi.

Sometimes there are whales. These are the large ladies who come to the pool for aqua-fit classes but arrive twenty minutes early and bask in the water until it is time for their class to begin. Clearly no-one has told them what a good idea it would be to do a few lengths of the pool before the class starts. We didn’t see any of them this evening. Maybe we left the pool too early.

So what about me? Well, when I run I think of myself as a bit of a tortoise: slow and steady but getting there in the end. I swim in a similar fashion; EVERYONE swims faster than I do. And that is no exaggeration. However, I can’t call myself a turtle as they swim very fast and dart about all over the place at great speed. So maybe I’m a bit of a clown fish, except that I think I flatter myself by suggesting I might be like any kind of fish.