Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The traditional view of things.

On Monday I came out of retirement briefly and became a teacher again for the day, standing in for a friend of ours who couldn’t manage his classes that day. It was quite fun for a change but I can’t say I’m seeking full time employment. I’ve always said I wasn’t going to doso unless I began to feel hard up and that hasn’t happened yet, fortunately. I only did it on Monday as a favour. 

One of the things I did during my lessons was ask some of the students about Hallowe’en, a festival I have commented on before now and which has been introduced into Spain, probably from the USA, rather like Starbucks. One of the students told me that he preferred the more traditional Galician “Samaín”. Now, I’ve seen posters up around San Joan do Monte, close to our flat in Vigo, advertising a “Samaín” party so I decided to Google it. This is what I found: 

“Samaín is the most important Celtic origin festival of the pagan period, which dominated Europe until its conversion to Christianism. It's celebrated on the night of October 31st and November 1st as the end of the harvest season and it was considered as the Celtic New Year and the beginning of the dark season. 

Etymologically, the word Samaín means the end of summer. The person who rediscovered this tradition in Galicia was a primary school teacher from Cedeira (A Coruña), Rafael López Loureiro. He realised that this tradition still existed all over Galicia less than thirty years ago. 

He also discovered its survival in areas of Caceres, Zamora and Leon, where Galician language and traditions are alive. He also studied the relationship between the pumpkin tradition and the death festivities similar to British traditions. He even discovered some peculiar things, like in Quiroga (Lugo), where the emptied pumpkins are left to dry and kept to be used as masks at Carnival (Entroido). 

Nowadays, Samaíin is still celebrated year after year in many cities and villages in Galicia, such as A Coruña, Ferrol, Cedeira... The village of Ribadavia (Ourense) celebrates the "noite meiga" (the witches' night), when the village gets full of ghosts, witches, vampires and Ribadavia's castle is the perfect setting for this terrifying landscape.”

 So there you go. Now we know. 

However, the fact is that everywhere is selling Hallowe’en costumes and banners wishing people Happy Hallowe’en. And there are a lot of very strangely dressed people around this evening. At least it’s not raining on the trick or treating, which I understand is happening back in Saddleworth. 

I suppose all the Hallowe’en stuff means that the people off the cruise ships will feel at home. And today there were two of them, not the biggest I’ve ever seen but still pretty large. 

This reminded me of an item I saw in one of the newspapers on-line about Venice where quite a controversy has sprung up because cruise liners are sailing twice a day up the Giudeca canal. Passengers on the boats get a wonderful view of the Piazza San Marco and other sites which must be lovely for them. It must come as a bit of a shock to other tourists who are strolling round the city. 
Venice is one of those places where each corner you go round gives you another spectacular view, another photo opportunity. Imagine what it’s like to turn one of those corners and come across a floating city towering over the place and overshadowing your view! 

And then there’s the conservation angle. Venice is having enough difficulty maintaining its heritage, beautiful buildings mostly perching on stilts. Having a whopping great boat going through, even very slowly, must make a lot of waves, undermining the eco-system. Why can’t the boats dock outside the city and disgorge their passengers, like they do in every other place they visit? That way the tourists could spend money in shops and cafes and maybe the city could survive a bit longer for future generations of tourists. 

On the other side of the world they’re having their own eco-problems as Hurricane Sandy is still causing havoc. A friend of ours posted a video on Facebook of the trees in her garden waving around and threatening to fall at any moment. 

And then I read that the replica ship The Bounty, built for the film Mutiny on the Bounty back in 1962, has been sunk by the storm. It seems the captain and crew decided it was better to head out for sea and try to avoid the approaching storm on the basis that a ship is safer at sea than in dock in such a situation. 

This time, though, the scope of the storm was greater than anyone expected and they didn’t manage to outrun the danger. All bar one of the crew was saved but the ship went down. What the mutiny couldn’t do, Hurricane Sandy managed. 

 What a shame! I don’t imagine they’ll ever rebuild it. If they need such a ship for a film in the future, they’ll do it with computer generated images. Clever technology but not the same thing at all. After all, you can’t go and stand on a computer generated image.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Sunny weekend

At the weekend the small boats come out onto the estuary: really small boats and lots of them. You see them sidle out of the harbour in single file like a very long line of ducklings and later you see them make their way back in, all in an orderly manner. In between times they bob about all over the place, presumably learning to manoeuvre properly. On Saturday they seem to stay out until late afternoon but on Sunday they all head back into port in plenty of time for family lunch, or at least I imagine that is their destination. Yesterday was very windy and I watched a number of them appear to tip right over. As they righted themselves after a few minutes and continued sailing, I assume that no lives were lost. 

The wind became so strong during the night that I had to get up and shut windows as the moaning howl was keeping me awake: one of the disadvantages of living on the seventh floor of a building already on a high point of the city. This morning, though, the wind had practically gone and the estuary was like a mill pond. 
In yesterday’s wind we walked up to the top of the Castro Park; we can’t visit Vigo without going there at least once. The autumn colours are getting along nicely and the wind blew the fountains around, creating mini-rainbows which I tried to capture with my camera. 

Earlier in the day there had been a knock on the door. On opening it, I saw two teenage girls who told me politely that they were organising the “Fiesta de Fin de Curso” – end of year party – for their school and would I like to contribute? Well, actually, no, I didn’t feel like contributing. Ten out of ten for effort and all that but shouldn’t they do a little more than go round begging from the neighbours? I didn’t get round to asking when this party was to be but the end of the year seems a long way off to me. And why should I pay for their fun? Isn’t that what parents are for? Maybe I’m turning into a grumpy old woman. 
Anyway, I didn’t let it spoil my weekend which has been pretty good on the whole. I suppose you could say it started on Wednesday really when we went to stay with a friend in Pontevedra for a couple of days, which was very nice. On Friday we brought him back with us to Vigo and we had a reunion lunch with some other old friends at El Puerto restaurant where the fish was excellent. Yesterday we had our walk in the wind and today we strolled in the sunshine on the coastal path round A Guía, paid for by EU funding, according to notices along the way. 
Nothing to complain about today then!

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Cultural exchange?

Some time ago my husband subscribed to a system in our region of the UK through which the local police send him an email from time to time letting him know about things they are doing to reduce crime in the area, information about increase in types of crime locally and stuff like that. 

The latest newsletter talked about a disturbing trend for large groups of young people, some as young as 13 or 14 to gather in local parks to drink and make merry. They organise themselves through the social media: mobile phones, Facebook and so on. Last weekend apparently some 150 got together in a park, got very drunk and threw fireworks around: drunk and dangerous! 

The police gather up underage drinkers and escort them home. They send warning letters out to parents reminding them to make sure that they know where their teenage children are on weekend evenings. They point out that selling alcohol to under-18s is against the law. 

 Now there have always been groups of youngsters standing around outside the Spar shop asking likely-looking passersby to pop in and buy them bottles of alcohol, usually cider. But these were always small groups of local kids trying their luck and, assuming someone gave in to them, they would sneak off somewhere quiet for a drink and a smoke. This latest phenomenon, however, is something else again. Youngsters from all over the place are gathering, not outside their own local Spar but in a more central venue and in bigger numbers. 

The Spanish have a name for it: botellón. I believe it started as a university-student activity, even at one point having almost competitions to see who could organise the biggest botellón. It soon spread upwards and downwards, including young teenagers (causing much consternation as they were being introduced to alcohol much sooner than their parents liked and with the new-to-Spain idea that the object of drinking was to get drunk) and up to 30+ year olds. Some places have even tried to control it with organised venues called “botellonodromos”. And I have known parents (not many, I have to admit) who have gone along with their teenagers to a botellón for the fiesta de San Juan in June. 

 However, I always thought the British climate, especially in the North West and even more especially in Saddleworth, didn’t really favour such gatherings. Sitting on wet grass in the rain doesn’t strike me as a great way to spend a Saturday night. Except that I suspect they are not sitting around eating pizza with their drinks and listening to the music someone has brought along – which is what happens here in Spain – but standing around, pushing each other about, daring each other to do daft things in that particularly drunken-British way. 

There are other Spanish drink-related habits I would rather see exported: the social activities that still go on in bars here such as dominoes and cards which have often disappeared in English pubs; the mix of ages you see in the bars; free tapas with your drinks, thus discouraging the drink-to-get-drunk attitude so common in the UK. But no, it seems we are getting the botellón. 

So what is Spain getting in return? Well, yesterday in our local Eroski supermarket I saw advent calendars, Sponge Bob Square Pants advent calendars!! 

When I was a child all you found were advent calendars whose little doors opened to reveal pictures of Christmassy things such as robins, holly, snowy scenes, culminating in the final scene of the stable at Bethlehem. When our children were small you started to see a few with chocolate treats behind the doors. I resisted them as long as possible. But at least they usually had Christmas themes. Nowadays all you can get are the chocolate variety. And what has Sponge Bob got to do with it? No idea! 

 No doubt someone is going to tell me that these things have been around here for years but it’s the first time I have seen them and I am not impressed. I wonder if they do specially extended calendars to go as far as the arrival of the Kings with the presents for the children! 

It’s bad enough that Hallowe’en, an American invention, seems to have taken almost over from All Saints but at least the Spanish tradition remains alongside it to some extent and they still sell “Huesos de Santos”, marzipan “Saints’ Bones” in the cake shops at this time of year.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Reading Matter.

While we were here in Galicia in the summer I read a book by Antonio Muñoz Molina in which he wrote about his reading and writing habits. One of the writers he praised was Max Aub, born in France in 1903 but brought up and educated in Spain and then forced to live in exile after the Spanish Civil War. He died in Mexico in 1972 and so never returned to Spain. He described Aub as one of the great writers about the Spain of the pre Civil War period and I was determined to read him but simply ran out of time before we returned to England. 

 So on Monday, after the rain eased a little, I made my way to Vigo library and looked for “El Laberinto Mágico” or at least the first two or three books in the series. Now, according to the computer all the books were available and I followed the numbering system around to the correct shelf. There they all were, except for volume two.

 So I took out volume one and informed the librarian of the problem. I’m not entirely sure why I bothered to do so for all I received in return was a bored-sounding, “oh, debe de estar mal puesto” – “Oh, it must have been put in the wrong place” in a kind of what-do-you-expect-me-to-do-about-it? tone of voice. The idea that someone might from time to time do a quick number check to hunt for books which have been “mal puestos” didn’t seem to occur to the helpful people working in the library. 

Anyway, I’ve made a start of book one and will return to see if book two has been relocated. This first book, “Campo Cerrado” – “Closed Field”, follows the progress of young Rafael López Serrador from small village to larger town and eventually to Barcelona, with his gradual political awareness as he goes along. It reminds me a lot of the work of Arturo Barea whose autobiographical work covers the same period. 

Max Aub’s work also includes comments on Spanish attitudes. At one point we see young Rafael going to a bullfight. The writer comments: 

 “The only thing a Spaniard does NOT think about when he goes to a bullfight is death. If this were not so, the spectacle would be unbearable, as it is to many foreigners who come in search of that bitterness. There is nothing more cheerful and optimistic than a bullfight.” 

Well, all right; it’s a way of looking at things and I have heard others say that the brilliance of the spectacle just carries you along but I’m not sure I quite see it myself. But then, I don’t go to bullfights for just that reason. 

Maybe it’s like being a flamenco dancer; you have to be born into the tradition!

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Fighting Elephants

On Friday, as I have already said in a previous post, we were obliged to listen in to the mobile phone conversations of a lady on the bus from Porto to Vigo. At one point as she loudly lamented so problem in her life which she had decided was insurmountable, I heard her say, “Yo contra elefantes no lucho” = “I don’t fight elephants”. I tucked the expression away for another day. 

 Last night I went to the Alliance Française in Vigo to attend the monthly book club. I hadn’t actually read the book. Had I realised back in the summer that I would be here for this month’s meeting I would have collected a copy and read it but that was not to be. Anyway, I was really going to say hello to some old friends rather than have an in-depth discussion about a book. 

 The book in question was “Les Tribulations d’une Caissière” = “The Trials and Tribulations of a Supermarket Cashier”. (Incidentally, I wonder why the English has both trials AND tribulations while the French only have tribulations. Is it that we are a more problem-laden, or at any rate more pessimistic, nation? Or is this another example of the richness of the English language, having several words for the same thing?) It was written by a thirty something young French woman who worked part time in a supermarket to finance her university studies. Having achieved her degree, she found there was no other work available and so she continued to work in the supermarket. This in itself led to much discussion about the job situation in Spain, France and just about everywhere else in the European Union.

Meanwhile the overqualified cashier wrote a book, making wry observations about her job: one way of fighting elephants I suppose. Mind you, as our group organiser kept reminding us, her book is amusing but can’t really be called great literature so I don’t suppose she’s going to have a great new career. However, she has the chance to make a bit of money. After all, a fair number of poorly written best-sellers have made their authors rich. I wish her the best of luck! 

On the subject of badly written stuff, I must comment on a discussion I am involved in on Facebook. For quite a long time I have had a running argument with my daughter about the past tense of the verb “to text”, as used about messages sent on mobile phones. I maintain that if you use that verb (and, yes, I have reluctantly accepted the transformation of a noun into a verb) then the past tense in “texted”, not just “text”. You can’t say, “I text you last night”. It’s just plain wrong. 

Now last night, exasperated by several examples of this mis-use I moaned about it on my Facebook status. The result has been a whole host of comments back, almost all agreeing with me and some raising other queries, such as what is the plural of the noun “text”; is it “texts” or “textes”? Now that’s just silly. Those of us who taught the old A-level modern language courses received lists of “set texts” every year. 

And I am reliably informed that my original grumble is the subject of a wider debate. There is even a forum about it: The verb 'to text (someone)'- what's the past tense? - General Discussion - Digital Spy Forums

 Clearly this is an elephant worth fighting.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Back in Vigo once more.

On Friday morning we waited outside MacDonald’s on Avenida Aliados in Porto for the bus to Vigo. A rather anxious German couple were also waiting. When they asked us whether the bus went to the airport we assured them that in our experience it usually did so, before continuing its journey to Vigo. However, when the bus arrived and the couple checked with the driver he appeared to say no and indicated either a stop further up the street or possibly the metro station Trindade about five minutes walk away. We assumed that the bus route must have changed and hoped it meant we would arrive in Vigo a little earlier than usual. Then the bus set of and went ... to the airport!!! Why had the driver told the German couple it didn’t go there? Did he misunderstand their question? No idea. 

 At the airport a model child got on the bus with his mother. He could have been no more than four years old but he sat and coloured pictures almost all the way to Vigo, keeping up a whispered commentary to himself in Italian all the while. Such concentration! At one point he wanted to watch his portable DVD player and was bemused to find that there was nowhere on the bus to plug it in. This was the only time he pestered his sleeping mother. I spoke to his mother later and she told me that although they had been travelling since three in the morning the model child had been angelic all the way. His only fault was a refusal to speak to her in Spanish – she was Venezuelan. He clearly understood her and could speak Spanish when he chose but he made a game of speaking Italian to her as she spoke very little. A sense of humour as well. 

He was clearly an ideal travelling companion, unlike the lady who sat near them and had a busy mobile-phone social life going on. The phone rang frequently, which was bad enough. To make matters worse she was one of those people who don’t realise that you have no need to speak at top volume in order to be heard at the other end of the phone call. 

Mind you, we are noticing a trend to speak not only loudly, but also extremely fast, especially amongst young Spanish women Goodness me, I can’t even THINK that fast. Anyway, we got back to Vigo and took a taxi to our flat: €5.40, much better value than the £13.50 I paid for a similar journey in Manchester. 

Just time to sort ourselves out and then go and have a late lunch. And for that we found a place just nearby offering a very traditional Gallego meal – main course of fish, potatoes and salad – for €7.50. Very good value indeed. 

After lunch we went on and recharged our dongle/modem so that we have an internet connection. How quickly will we use up €25’s worth? 

Buying odds and ends in the local supermarket I noted that Christmas is well on the way here, as well as in the UK. Shelves of chocolate tree-decorations sit alongside stacks of the more traditional turrón. No advent calendars or mince pies though. I wonder if they’ll import those as well as other Englishness. For it was in the Eroski supermarket that I spotted a strange hybrid-language sign: “I heart-symbol ahorrando”. Now “ahorrar” is Spanish for “to save” so the sign must be intended to mean “I love saving”. But what an odd idea to mix the two languages in that almost totally meaningless way. 

Closer to the town centre, the hole in the ground that might one day be the high-speed AVE train station has made progress, but not a lot. I am concerned at the amount of ground that is being covered with concrete. Where will all the rain go? Maybe this is what taxes the minds of the numerous men who stand and watch the work. 

Meanwhile, Vigo treated us on Friday to almost the whole gamut of weather: wind, sun, cloud, rain (but not torrential, so not quite the full range) and even a rainbow. Not to mention a fine sunset. And yesterday the sun shone and the temperature got up to about 16°. Today has been a bit cloudy but still warm enough to go for walk to A Guía. 
No complaints then. 

Good to be back.

Friday, 19 October 2012

Flying Etiquette

Here we are, in Porto one again, en route to Vigo. Slightly earlier than originally planned because of the vagaries if low-cost airlines. Our idea was to visit Vigo at the end of October, UK schools half term time, with the daughter and offspring in tow. At the end of that week said daughter and offspring would return to the UK and we would stay on another week or so, daughter finding alternative occasional childcare for that period. Then, on investigating travel, we discovered that flights between Liverpool and Porto, so convenient for us, finish on November 4th, not starting again until the spring. So we reversed the order of things and we have come now. 

And so we played the budget airlines game of fitting as much as possible into 10 kilos each of hand luggage. With a certain amount of stuffing things in pockets you can manage that. At Liverpool airport, we watched as people put handbags inside suitcases (myself included) prior to the ritual weighing of bags. 

What surprised me, however, was the number of people who took the handbags out again once they were in the queue for boarding. It was a bit like the schoolgirls who pass the “no make-up” check as they go into school and then rush into the toilets to put on their mascara. I suspect that it’s only the speed of turn-around which prevents further checking up by the airline. 

On the plane there was the usual scramble for seats with intermittent lengthy holdups while passengers try to stuff oversized bags into overhead lockers, which have to immediately above where they are sitting of course. This time we reached the point of hearing an announcement that if we didn’t take off in the next six minutes we would be delayed for an hour, so would passengers PLEASE take their seats NOW!!! 

Our flight was clearly suffering from the worst case of “naughty class syndrome” that I’ve seen in quite a while. As the plane was still taxi-ing down the runway at some speed, the first disobedient passenger got up and opened the locker to get his bag. Once the plane stopped but still the seat-belt signs illuminated a mass of others followed suit. Instructions to remain seated were broadcast, to no avail.

 Eventually the cabin crew had to march up and down the aisle persuading and sometimes manhandling passengers back into their seats and then slamming lockers shut. It was all quite amusing in an odd sort of way. 

And finally the train into Porto and we arrived at our hotel, the one we’ve stayed at many times before. Time now for breakfast and then the bus to Vigo.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

8/10 for effort.

On my travels I am always amused to come across examples of English creeping into foreign languages. One day, sitting drinking coffee in Modica, Sicily, I came across the following anglicisms in the local paper: 

 lo shopping lowcost 
le celebrities – this one makes the English word plural 
le top model – but this one doesn’t bother; it relies on the plural “the” (le) 
il fashion system 
jeans news 
Showroom Italia 
moda e design 
lo spending review
 il fashion hub 
urban chic 

Many of these were in advertisements but by no means all of them. And many of them are related to the fashion industry, where English appears to be “cool” in all languages. I bet the French are a bit miffed about that! 

Sometimes you come across a whole sentence, like this one: Berlino revoluziona il concept del concept store – Berlin revolutionises the concept of the concept store. 

Now, I know that English has borrowed words right, left and centre from other languages but I can’t say I’ve noticed recent imports. I shall have to keep an eye out for them from now on. Watch this space! 

Another source of amusement – and often exasperation – is mistranslation. 

Sometimes it’s just a spelling mistake, like the “dinning room” that we saw in the Castle of Donnafugata. 

Menus are a great source of wonderful English; I recently saw “pesce spada”, swordfish, translated as “cutlass fish”, giving it a nice piratical air. 

 When we climbed up “la rocca”, the huge hill behind the cathedral in Cefalù, we saw some delightful warning notices, telling us “Not to exceed” for “Non oltrapassare “ ( “do not go beyond this point”, I suppose,would be better) 
and “Do not lean” for “Non sporgersi” instead of “Do not lean over/ Do not lean out”. 

Information leaflets in museums and stately homes are also quite wonderful. The one we picked up in the Palazzo dei Normani in Palermo regularly used “realised” for “carried out” or simple “done” or “made”. Painted ceilings and mosaics were frequently “realised” in the past. 

The same leaflet gave us lots of information about the “Sala d’Ercole” without actually mentioning the “Ercole” is the Italian for Hercules, the Greek hero who, incidentally, did not carry out tasks but “fatigues” according to this translation. 

Sometimes the mistake is just odd word order, such as “In the dome dominates the image of ....” or a missing word, as in “do not miss the bookshop on ground floor”. But at other times you find completely strange and meaningless stuff: “... the construction of the Cappella Palatina, the highest example of architectonic plan showing the encounter between different cultures and religions”. What on earth is “architectonic plan”? 

This particular leaflet ends with this comment on the paintings and furnishings in the Appartamenti Reali: “you are recommended not to touch them and not to seat on the pieces of furniture in order to preserve them”. Oh, so it’s only a recommendation? Not to be taken too seriously then? 

 Of course, it’s not just English that gets mangled. In this notice inviting us to “go upstairs” in a bell tower, the Spanish and French were just as bad as the English. I can’t comment on the German but it’s almost certainly got mistakes in it. 


 How hard must it be to find a native speaker to read through the translation before you publish it? Ah but then, I suppose it’s a case of jobs-for-the-boys. Somebody’s brother, cousin, auntie knows a bit of English or French or whatever and needs some work. Let them do it! 

I really shouldn’t criticise too much though. After all, they do put information out in foreign languages. In London last week we went to the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at Tate Britain. All the information notices next to the paintings were in English. Yes, you can get an audio-guide in foreign languages but not everyone wants to do that. 

Similarly, on trains and on the metro announcements are all in English. When we travel around Galicia by train, announcements come in Castilian Spanish, Galician and ... yes, you’ve guessed it ... English! 

And then today I went past a restaurant just around the corner from our house where they were advertising special events: “Friday Night’s at Fresca”. Is there a word missing? Or is it just another rogue apostrophe? 

Oh, please, don’t get me started on apostrophes!

Sunday, 7 October 2012

In praise of ...

I feel that my recent posts have perhaps been a little negative. Altogether too much moaning and complaining and stressing about things. So I decided it was time to dedicate a post to something purely positive. 

When we went to Palermo we stayed in a bed and breakfast, the B&B Porta di Castro , and it was a totally delightful place to stay. 

 When we arrived, because of some kind of mix-up in booking or, as I later gleaned from conversation with the very helpful Alessandro, perhaps because another client was not totally happy with their room, we were offered not just a room but a whole apartment to stay in for our four nights on Palermo. Truly, we could almost have put up the whole family, there was so much cat-swinging room. OK, there was no lift but there was air-conditioning throughout which made up for a lot. 

Our balcony looked out onto a busy back street of Palermo. Neighbours across the street waved if you went out onto the balcony. 

The foyer was decorated in an esoteric fashion, totally charming and often added to by the presence of an old gentleman who just sat and passed the time of day, possibly the father of Massimo and/or Alessandro. I never did work out whether those two were brothers but I do have a sneaky suspicion that that was the case. 
The day we arrived was hot and sticky; there was talk of the hot scirocco wind making conditions even worse. We had walked from the central station through some very dodgy-looking streets and were more than a little tired. (This was before we had discovered the metro service form the central station to a place five minute sup the road!) Before we even checked in we were offered a bottle of mineral water or, if we preferred, coca cola, from a fridge next to a bit of old memorabilia. 

Elsewhere on the ground floor was an old carpenter’s bench, used as a kind of filing cabinet cum storage place for odd extension cables and other electrical bits and pieces. 
Breakfast was served from a bar made by placing a sheet of thick glass over a big old stone bathtub. And what a breakfast: as much coffee as you cared to ask for, croissants, brioche or whichever pastry you selected, accompanied by a plate of freshly chopped fruit. 

They were determined you were going to have your five-a-day! And then, when you were halfway through that, they brought you freshly made ham and cheese toasties. The philosophy was that you had to eat to keep your strength up to face the hard work of walking around in the sunshine. 

 On top of all that, they recommended excellent places to eat, even going so far as to book a table for you. And if they didn’t actually do that, you just had to say you came from V&B Porta di Castro to get good service 

 When the time came to leave, Alessandro got on his moped and rode up to the (hard to find) metro station to buy tickets for us. AND he got up early to make sure we did not leave without our hearty breakfast. 

 A wonderful place! Everyone should go there!

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Moaning again!

 On Monday we used our Oyster cards – with our old-fogey railcard reduction – to travel from our son’s new almost-in-the-country residence back into central London. 

There we saw the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition at the Tate Britain, once again flaunting our old-fogey status to get a reduction. The exhibition  remains open until mid-January and is well worth seeing. Lots of pictures, lots of information – we enjoyed it. 

And then in the middle of it we spotted a picture called “The Children’s Holiday” by William Holman Hunt, a paining which purported to show an idyll of middle-class domesticity. Idyll or not, what surprised us was that the lady surrounded by charming children was the spit and image of Edwina Currie, politician, MP, novelist, broadcaster. The likeness was quite uncanny. 

Having had our dose of culture for the day we went on to Baker Street where Phil visited a chess bookshop – he does this every time we go to Baker Street – while I ranted about internet access in cafes in the UK. See my last post. 

And then on Tuesday we once more used our oyster cards to go to central London, this time to catch a train to Manchester. Thereby hangs a tale. 

Today’s news has included an item about the West Coast rail franchise, currently held by Virgin but recently awarded to another company. There is some controversy about the awarding of the franchise and the selection methods used so for the time being it remains with Virgin. Which brings me to my railway story which in turn makes me wonder if Virgin should run that railway line. 

We had booked tickets online for one of Virgin’s trains from London to Manchester. A nice bargain price we got too but that’s not the point of this tale. We got on the train without mishap, despite carrying huge paper cups of coffee. (This time the coffee came from Délice de France, something of a misnomer I think. When I pointed out that in France they would never serve you half a gallon of coffee, the young lady at the counter sighed and told me that this is England and people expect large cups of coffee. I want to question that assumption; my feeling is that the demand has been imported from the USA, along with a cafe chain I have ranted about before. Surely there are others as well as me who want a normal sized cup of coffee. Time to introduce the “extra small” cup. The croissant and pain au chocolat from Délice de France were fine, by the way.) 

 All appeared to go well on our journey. We drank our coffee. We read the paper. I completed the sudoko puzzle. We snoozed. And then the train manager made an announcement. Our train was going to terminate its journey at Crewe because of a problem with another train. At Crewe we would be able to transfer to another train to Manchester. We should be sure to take all our belongings with us. 

In due course, we arrived at Crewe and were directed to leave the train. Which we all obediently did: a very large number of people milling about on the platform at Crewe. Then everything went vaguely pear-shaped. There seemed to be contradictory announcements about which platform to go to in order to catch the train to Manchester. Everyone was concerned that the train might leave before we got to the correct platform. None of the announcements mentioned passengers from a Virgin train. Something like chaos was developing. 

Eventually most of us made our way to platform 5 where there was indeed a train heading for Manchester. This was clearly not a Virgin Pendolino however so I asked the driver if it was all right to get on his train with Virgin tickets. Our printed tickets had said quite specifically that they were for the train we had caught in London and for THAT TRAIN ONLY. The driver seemed to think it was fine so we, and a whole host of Virgin refugees, got on. 

The train set off and after a while someone came to check tickets, a uniformed lady. When the first of our group showed a Virgin ticket she told him he would have to leave the train at the next station. He was not accepting this and remonstrated with Uniformed Lady. Not only this but half the carriage sat up and took notice. Safety in numbers was clearly the order of the day. Uniformed Lady harrumphed at each ex-Virgin-customer and went on her way. 

She soon came back though and as the train pulled into Wilmslow she told the first gentleman she had harangued that he had to get all the Virgin passengers off the train NOW. He was just a passenger, with no official position, so he took little notice and merely organised himself. The message filtered through, however, and most people left the train. Some started to leave and then thought better of it. The train was delayed in the station for about ten minutes while this fuss went on. 

 In the meantime, we had located the Wilmslow station manager and explained the situation. She was surprised and more than a little cross. Uniformed Lady’s train was blocking her platform. No other train could get in while it was there. And besides, she couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Uniformed Lady should have justletus all travel. 

We had a further discussion and found out that there was in fact a Virgin train due in about twenty minutes. It didn’t normally stop at Wilmslow but would make a special unscheduled stop this time. However, it was going via Manchester airport and would take a while getting to Manchester Piccadilly. As a result most of us caught the next ordinary train going to Manchester, not a Virgin train but the Wilmslow station manager sorted it out so that we could all get on without problems. 

On arriving in Manchester, some thirty minutes later than originally planned, we went in search of the Virgin information desk and collected a complaints form. I am sure that the original problem was beyond Virgin’s control but their handling of the problem left a lot to be desired. 

At the Virgin desk we came across a couple, travellers from our original train, who were trying to claim back from Virgin the money that they had been charged for a ticket on a train from a different company. Somehow they had been the only Virgin- escapees on that train and had given in to the pressure. At least we did not have to spend any extra money!! 

And finally, this morning I set off on my normal back-in-Delph jogging route. When we came home from Spain at the end of August I had found one entrance to this route blocked off with a new fence but had found a way round that problem. Today I found another fence at the other end of that section of my route and had to climb up a bank to get round that. Now, this is a patch of land that people around here have walked across for about 35 years. The workmen reinforcing the fence as I returned from my run just told me grumpily that it was private land and didn’t seem to feel the need to explain anything more. 

Time for another bit of complaining I think!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Wonderful World of WIFI

Here I am, sitting in Starbucks, something which goes against all my better instincts. I have a strong dislike for Starbucks and the so-called coffee it serves in bucket-sized cups. I object to their taking over the world of coffee-drinking places  when so many other places produce much better coffee. So why am I here? The answer is simple and consists of four letters: WIFI.

In Spain we have no difficulty whatever in finding cafes with perfectly good WIFI connections for free. In Sicily we had WIFI in all the hotels we stayed at. We have returned to the UK just in time for our son to move house. Consequently he has no internet connection until tomorrow. So we have been obliged to find another way of connecting:  WIFI in cafes.

We tried Caffe Nero, where the coffee is relatively good, in their branch in Chesham, where the boy has relocated to. Decent coffee, but hopelessly weak signal. So reluctantly we moved our business to Starbucks, Chesham on Saturday and yesterday. 

Today we are in London, on Baker Street to be precise. On one corner is Starbucks and just opposite, Costa. So we went into Costa and had decent coffee but once again hopeless WIFI. So back to Starbucks, where once again the connection is fast and efficient.

How hard is it to set up a good WIFI system? If little places in Spain can do it, why can't cafe chains here in the UK? Is it something to do with being chains? I have no answer but I feel just a little frustrated.

Anyway, here I am in Starbucks, but not drinking their coffee. Phil opted for orange juice but I spotted a "Naked Antioxidant", made I suppose by The Naked Bean company. This drink declares itself to be an apple, pineapple and kiwi smoothie. When you pour it put it looks like cold spinach soup. The dominant taste however is banana. Strange!!

On the bottle it makes a virtue of its odd colour and says that people should drink this smoothie as a challenge to all the pink and orange smoothies in the world. The list of ingredients is astounding:

3.3 apples

1 banana

0.3 kiwi

0.3 mango
1 pineapple

It also contains certain "healthy" ingredients to make it green: spirulina (what is that?), chlorella (what is that?), broccoli, spinach (I did say looked like cold spinach soup), blue-green algae, odourless garlic (is there such a thing?), barley grass, wheat grass, ginger and parsley.

It has NO added sugars, NO preservatives and comes in a recyclable plastic bottle. It sounds as though it's good for you and, what's more, it tastes good. I am amazed.

If I have to come to Starbucks again, this is what I will have in future.

Oh, yes, the other thing I forgot to mention in my rant about the difficulty of getting Internet access is the cost. Today alone it has cost us over £10 - cofffee in Costa and then fruit drinks in Starbucks. This is considerably more than we would spend in a whole evening in the Nuevo Derby cafe in Vigo. And there we would be given free tapas with our beer and some friendly conversation from the staff.

It's very strange that in the UK, where the computer - household ratio is far higher than in Spain, it is so much more difficult and so much more expensive to get public WIFI access. Incidentally, we made enquiries about WIFI when we arrived at the airport here, before catching the train into London. There is Internet access just about everywhere in the complex, we were told, but you have to pay for it. So it goes!