Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Border Matters

So Catalonia might be getting a step closer to leaving Spain, or at least a step closer to a referendum on leaving Spain. I continue to be amazed at this obsession with separatism. Why do places like Catalonia and Scotland want to go it alone? Will life really be better for them if they are a small stand-alone unit instead of part of a bigger, possibly supportive, entity? Oh, I understand the identity issue. Almost everyone wants to feel part of a group of some kind. But surely it’s possible to be Scots AND British, Catalan AND Spanish. I personally feel quite Mancunian even though I wasn’t born in this area. Our son, born in Saddleworth (Oldham, Greater Manchester) got very distressed during the riots of summer 2011 because of what they were doing to HIS city: London! Nationality, like city-loyalty, is a relative thing. And as a matter of fact I usually feel more European than anything else. 

And then there is the question of who gets to vote. Do Scots (i.e. born in Scotland to longstanding Scots families) who live in other parts of the UK or Catalans (same criteria) who live in other parts of Spain have the right to vote in a referendum about separation from the rest of their “country”? What about all those Andalusians who have emigrated to Catalonia in search of work (Catalonia has been referred to as the ninth province of Andalucía) and stayed there? Do they get to take part in the decision-making? I’ve not even begun to get my head round the question of whether the rest of us should have some say in a bit of our country splitting off. Just working out who votes is going to be hard enough. 

 Borders seem to be cropping up in news stories in other forms as well. There is Saudi Arabia where apparently they send text messages to husbands when women leave the country – or probably before they actually leave. Surely the husbands know already as they have to give permission for their women to travel! I like the way they make use of the trappings of modern life to maintain attitudes which are positively medieval. 

I read today about someone who was questioned about her relationship with the child travelling with her (her one-year-old daughter) because they had different surnames. This was the UK Border Agency being over zealous in checking passengers on the Eurostar. She was asked to prove that this was her daughter and was advised to carry her marriage certificate or the child’s birth certificate with her in future. I wonder how the UK Border Agency has coped all these years with Spanish mothers whose surnames are different form those of their children. 

While we are on the subject of travelling, it seems that some UK universities are now offering free classes in foreign languages – European and non-European – to students on other courses. The take-up has surprised them and they have had to increase the number of classes available. It might be the fact that these classes cost nothing and students feel that as they have paid such extortionate fees to go to university they might as well get something extra back. Or maybe it’s bit of maturity; UK students are finally realising that having the ability to speak another language is an asset. Whatever the reason, it’s good to see people learning languages. 

I even have personal evidence of this trend towards language learning. I am Facebook friends with a number of ex-students. The majority of these are students who took a foreign language for A-Level but some are ex-members of tutor groups. Now, among the latter group an increasing number have decided, often having completed degree courses in something scientific, to go and spend a year as an au pair in order to convert their GCSE French/German/Spanish into something more fluent. Most of them at sixth form college would have run a mile rather than continue with their language studies. (Is it something wrong with the GCSE courses that puts them off?) 

Of course, it may be simply that they are putting off the eventual search for a “proper job” but I like to think it’s the desire to get to know another culture through learning its language properly.

Sunday, 25 November 2012


For the last few days we have been playing “chase the sun”. This involves choosing the moment between torrential rainstorms to go out for a walk and catch whatever sunshine there is around before it sets behind a hill. One of the disadvantages of living where we do is that the sun disappears very quickly once it decides to go down. Too many hills! 

 One of the advantages is that we are far enough up one of the hills to avoid any possible flooding, thank goodness! We are very much aware that other parts of the country have had much worse weather than we have. It does not, of course, stop us moaning. 

But yes, we have come off lightly. A fair few mud puddles around but otherwise this is the worst flooding we seem to have around here. 

However, we are not too successful in the game of “chase the sun” as it usually shines on the hill some distance away from where we happen to be walking. 

Today, though, we doubled back, going past the rather pretty church at Dobcross – church which always looks as though it belongs in some other country – and got to the top road in time to catch some rays. 

It’s that time of year, you see, when Phil wants to catch the rays instead of dodging them which is what he tries to do for most of the summer months. 

All this sun chasing reminded me of the article I read about San Francisco where they have had to introduce a new by-law to prevent people from walking around naked. One chap pictured in the paper likes to make his way to a local square with his folding chair, take his clothes off and sit in the sunshine to read. Others just like to stroll around in their birthday suits, getting all the healthy vitamin D from the sunshine. That’s all very nice but why can’t they do it in their own gardens? Or go to a nudist beach? And what’s wrong with a pair of shorts, for goodness sake? And is it only the men who indulge in this habit? Or do the ladies of San Francisco insist on equality and show off their golden bodies to all and sundry? I wonder!!! 

This led me on to reflecting about the naked rambler, a gentleman who likes to roam the highways and by-ways, bridle paths and hiking trails of the UK with nothing but his boots and a sunhat. Why would you? It just sounds silly to me. I notice that we don’t hear much of him at this time of year. Sensible chap 

 Maybe he winters in California.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012


When my alarm rang this morning I got out of bed, opened the curtains, saw the rain coming down, closed the window and got back into bed to watch the rain. Yesterday I got up and did my usual run along the Donkey Line, one of our local bridle paths, and came back rather mud-splattered. And that was before yesterday’s rain got going properly. The prospect of even more mud, and rain still falling, put me off this morning. 

On Monday mornings, as I have explained before now, I get up at the crack of dawn to drive to my daughter’s house. Every time, almost without fail, I see early morning joggers. Usually they are running on the road. Now, I have seen the pavements that they don’t run on and they are in an appalling state. So I can quite understand that running in the road is a less dangerous option than running on the pavement with the risk of falling into the road after turning your ankle on the bad pavement surface. 

All the same, running in the dark in the rain at 6.00 in the morning smacks of obsession. I have lots of admiration for them but this jogger/blogger is not joining in that game. Besides, I am in the privileged position of being able to run later in the day if I so choose. 

 So, anyway, I stayed in bed a little longer, got up and did some indoor exercises and then had a leisurely breakfast, starting to read a new book as I did so. This is “Transition” by Iain Banks. In his prologue he describes a period of time as “that golden age which nobody noticed at the time, I mean the long decade between the fall of the Wall and the fall of the Towers”. He goes on to clarify a little: “One event symbolised the lifted threat of worldwide nuclear holocaust, something which had been hanging over humanity for nearly forty years, and so ended an age of idiocy. The other ushered in a new one.” 

Sometimes writers manage to express what you feel with some accuracy. I suppose that’s why they are successful writers. 

Mr Banks also talks about “the third Fall, the fall of Wall Street and the City, the fall of the banks, the fall of the Markets, beginning on September 15th, 2008”. We are still feeling the effects of the last two “falls” he talks about. 

Whenever I go into our local town centre and see Muslim women covered head to toe, I know it’s one of the effects of the fall of the Two Towers. As is the fact that I have to go through the rigmarole of putting liquids in a little plastic bag to show in the airport whenever I travel. 

And then the effects of the fall of the banks are all around us, both here and in our other home in Spain: closed shops – many replaced by loan shops or the suddenly ubiquitous “We Buy Your Gold”/ “Compro Oro” shops – rising unemployment and in Spain demonstrators on the streets. 

Which brings me to an Asturian actor by the name of Arturo Fernández. He featured in La Voz de Galica because of his comments in a TV chat show called “El Gato al Agua”. Talking about demonstrators he said, “Cuando se sale a la calle, se sale con gente guapa. En las manifestaciones... yo en mi vida he visto gente tan fea, ..., ¡pero cómo es posible! A estos no los veo por la calle, deben de tenerlos en campos de concentración, porque no lo puedo entender.” Loosely translated: “When you go out on the street, you go out with good looking people. In demonstrations ... I have never seen such ugly people in my life, ..., how can that be possible! I don’t see those people on the street, they must keep them in concentration camps, because I don’t understand it.” 

He claimed to be concerned about the image of Spain given to foreigners who see the demonstrators on TV reports. His concern was not about violence or about the rights and wrongs of their politics but, quite simply, the appearance of the demonstrators. All demonstrators should be young and beautiful perhaps? Apparently the audience were open-mouthed (with surprise? horror? who knows) and his fellow guests falling about laughing. 

Not very politically correct Mr Fernández!

Monday, 19 November 2012

Buildings and things.

According to an article in El País online, the architect Gaudí’s famous Casa Milá (aka La Pedrera) in Barcelona is unfinished – it should have a huge bronze statue of the Madonna on top apparently – and very nearly had to be demolished as it is really too tall to meet building regulations. In 1909 the local authority imposed a fine of 100 000 pesetas (however much that is in Euros) before letting construction continue. Somehow that sounds so very Spanish! 

Well, it’s been standing for 100 years now but if anyone wants more facts about it here’s the article. 

While we’re on the subject of building I’ve been reading about a suggested solution to the number of houses standing empty and simply not selling in Spain. The Spanish government proposes offering “residencia”, the right to live and work in Spain, to foreigners who purchase houses to the value of €160 000 or more. The measure is said to be targeting potential Chinese and Russian buyers. Sceptics regard it as a patch and not a complete solution but the government claims it has been introduced in Ireland and Portugal already. 

I wonder what kind of resentment it might spark in those who are being thrown out of their homes as the banks reclaim them when they fail to make their mortgage payments. People are protesting about that. 

Meanwhile here in the UK there are increasingly common stories about families who have had to sell up when their mortgage payments have gone up and who still simply can’t manage to feed their families. Careful budgeting goes only so far, especially when food prices keep on rising. 

However, according to something I read in the Metro, the free paper, one thing that remains cheap is alcohol. The headline annoyed me somewhat: “Children say cut-price booze has put Britain top of the drinking league”. I have no argument with the statistics that say that too many people in the UK drink simply to get drunk or that a litre bottle of cider is cheaper than a couple of cinema tickets. These are long-standing problems in the UK. 

I do, however, take issue with the term “children”, especially when closer reading reveals that they mean the 16 to 24 year olds who were surveyed. I know that legally 16 year olds are still children and, yes, I know that legally they can’t be served in pubs I also know that many 13 year olds have already been drunk. But when I see a headline like that, it sounds as though they’ve been talking to a bunch of 8 to 10 year olds. 

It’s misleading and I don’t like the emotional blackmail so often used by headline writers or by news reporters in general.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Great Expectations

Waiting for a tram in Manchester the other day I snapped this strange building in progress. 

Now, at every bus/tram stop or railway station platform there is bound to be a know-it-all and this was true on that occasion. A gentleman, who had already informed me that my tram would certainly be along in a moment (as if I had some doubt about this), told me that this was going to be another multi-story office block or possibly residential block – clearly he didn’t really know everything after all. What we could see was the central lift shafts. And once he said that you could see that this was so. They were working from the inner core to the outside skin. But in the meantime it looked rather like some strange fortified tower. 

 It was a beautiful day when I admired the lift-shafts-in-progress and I hoped the same would be true of the following day. We had planned a walk over the hill with my brother in law. We do this several times a year, walking, as I said, over a local hill and paying a ritual visit to Diggle chippie. This could possibly be the best fish and chip shop in the world or maybe it’s just that whenever you eat fish and chips in the open air they always taste good. Anyway, the day started fine and bright and rapidly grew greyer and greyer. 

By the time my brother in law arrived, almost lunchtime, it was very dull indeed. Nothing daunted, we set off, in rather a hurry as we only just had time to get there before the chippie closed. As it was, they had run out of fish by the time we got there and we had to make do with pies. Not quite what we had planned but the chips were as good as ever. So we ate al fresco, beside the duck pond, and then headed for home along the canal. And the rain kept off until later in the day so we avoided a wetting. All’s well that ends well!! 
I’ve been reading about a chap who believes he is the illegitimate son of Princess Margaret. Apparently he always felt that his parents were much more affectionate towards his younger siblings and so convinced himself that he was adopted. Finding no evidence of adoption certificates around he convinced himself that his mother, who worked in some capacity for Princess Margaret’s household, had been persuaded to register him as her own child, thus saving royal face. As might be expected, the royal family is not very forthcoming with DNA samples to allow him to prove (or not) that he is somewhere inline for the throne. Lots of people persuade themselves that they are adopted but most usually grow out of it. This sounds like delusions of grandeur to me. 

And we’ve just started watching the third and final series of the Scandinavian police drama “The Killing”. Ten minutes in and we were already on tenterhooks. The tension mounts with every new scene. I’m surprised we can sit still while we watch. Anyway, at one point a local bigwig industrialist’s child is kidnapped and the head honcho policeman warns our heroine, Sarah Lund (wearing this season’s must-have fluffy sweater), not to mess up because this family is on a par with royalty. Uh oh! I could feel my hackles rising. Does this mean that the child of some less wealthy family, from some family of lower social standing, would not be such a priority case? 

Maybe that’s why the other chappie wants to be part of the royal family: extra special treatment!

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Putting things in perspective

From time to time I have a little whinge about the weather. It’s normal. Most of us prefer to be able to get out and about without having to be completely waterproofed first. But at least where I live we don’t suffer from the kind of flooding which has hit many parts of Italy over the weekend. 

Pictures of people walking down streets turned into shallow canals in Venice ... 

 or sitting in the water drinking coffee in Saint Mark’s Square ... 

or even swimming in Saint Mark’s Square (is it really warm enough to do that even in mid-November?) don’t give any idea of the misery of being flooded. 

At least in Venice, where water levels rose by 1.5 metres on Sunday, they are used to high water. I’ve been there with “acqua alta”, although not so high that I had to wade through waist deep water carrying my suitcase. The sirens sound, the walkways are erected and people get on with life. Apparently all the art galleries and museums make sure that their exhibits are all on the first floor, well above even the highest water. 

In other parts of Italy they have suffered as people always do with water pouring into homes and causing havoc, just as it has done in New York State and other parts of America. The power of uncontrolled water is quite astounding and very frightening. 

We’ve just finished watching the second series of “Treme”, an American TV series by the team who gave us “The Wire”, telling the story of a New Orleans community trying desperately to pick up the threads of their lives after Katrina. Years on from the flooding, they are still fighting bureaucracy and the prevarications of those who hope to profit from the disaster. 

Many of the characters are involved one way or another with music. It’s worth watching the series for the music alone but the whole thing is wonderfully put together.

Go and watch it as soon as possible.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Travel problems.

At the moment it seems that the best part of the day is early in the morning. Oversleep and you miss it. On a number of occasions I have been out and about early, off for a run or making my way somewhere, and let myself be lulled into a false sense of security, thinking that we were set fair for a good day. However, a good number of these days that start so promisingly end up grey and damp and drizzly. Such a disappointment! 

Today was a case in point, although it has to be said that there were other annoyances today as well. On Monday I get up at the crack of dawn – serious crack of dawn stuff, still dark outside and last Monday with frost everywhere to boot – and drive to my daughter’s house. There I hand the car over so that she can drive away for a day at university while I get the small people up and organised for school. The car is left at my house on Sunday evening so that we can do this as there is no public transport at that time of day. After I have dropped the small people off at school, sometimes involving a game of tig in the playground before they go in, I stroll along to Stalybridge railway station, about 25 minutes walk, and catch the train home. 

This morning it was fairly grey but not raining as I walked to the railway station: although a little chilly, not unpleasant. By the time I reached the railway station it was starting to drizzle. It was at this point that the day started to go a little pear-shaped. 

 First of all, the train I planned to catch had been cancelled. No problem, thought I. I would just catch the next train in the opposite direction, get off at Ashton Under Lyne and pop into IKEA before catching a bus home. According to the station electronic display, that train should leave from platform 5. 

Now, the Stalybridge station I have known for some time has always had only two platforms, the usual sort of arrangement with one platform on either side of the tracks. So where had platform 5 appeared from? There has been some re-vamping of the station and there are now sidings which are pretending to be platforms. What used to be platform 1 now comprises platforms 1, 2 and 3 while the former platform 2 is now platforms 4 and 5, depending on where you stand. Anyway, I found platform 5 ... eventually. 

The due time for the train’s departure approached but the train did not. Several other prospective passengers and I enquired about this and were told that we would be better heading for platform 3 (formerly known as platform 1) to catch a delayed Huddersfield to Manchester train. Just as we were about to trudge through the tunnel to do this, a train pulled in to platform 5. We were pleased, briefly. A host of angry people got off the train; they were supposed to be going to Huddersfield but had just been told that the train was terminating its journey at Stalybridge. We asked the driver. He had no idea; until a few minutes earlier he had thought he was going to Huddersfield. So we went through the tunnel and eventually caught a train. 

Apparently all this chaos was caused by signal failure somewhere on the way to Huddersfield, resulting in trains being delayed, cancelled, restarted and generally mixed up. Trains were in the wrong places. It was beginning to be like one of those children’s games you used to get with a load of letters in a square frame to push around until they made words. Somehow they had to get the trains to the right places to get the schedule back on track. Very frustrating for the travelling public. I was very glad not to be commuting to work or heading for an important meeting. I kept overhearing mobile phone conversations along the lines of, “Well, my train’s been cancelled. I won’t make it to the meeting on time. Expect me when you see me.” 

Mind you, from the travel news I had heard on the radio earlier, it was no better on the roads in the Greater Manchester area! 

Then I walked through the drizzle to IKEA with the idea that I was going to buy some more of a certain fabric I had found there to make cushion covers for chairs in my kitchen. I knew exactly what I was looking for but the textiles department appeared to have disappeared. That too is being re-vamped and will be re-established, bigger and better, in a week or so. How very frustrating! What’s more, the drizzle was now turning into rain! 

So I picked up some essential supplies from a nearby supermarket and headed for home, rather later than planned and less than pleased with my morning! 

Not all days are grey, however. On Saturday I went into Manchester with our eldest granddaughter and found the city centre crisp and bright, looking its best. 

We were heading for the Whitworth Art Gallery to look at some pictures. We saw some Hogarth and some Hockney, the latter echoing the former’s Rake’s Progress with a series of drawings from his early days in New York. Most interesting! 

What we really wanted to do, though, was take a photo of the view from the huge picture window on the ground floor which framed the trees in the Whitworth Park beautifully. However, there were “No Photographs” notices all over the place. And then, by the time we came out the sun had either moved or gone behind a cloud and the park looked much more ordinary and less photogenic. So we headed homewards.

 And Saturday’s travel turned into a kind of pre-cursor of today’s problems. We waited for our train, watched it pull in to stop at the platform and then saw the announcement change from “On Time” to “Cancelled”. We were not the only ones to give voice to cries of “What?” and “You can’t just cancel a train, just like that!!!!” A station employee explained to us that the driver was perfectly prepared to take the train out but they had no guard. In a time of high unemployment they can’t find people willing to work as guards on trains! Unbelievable! 

We discovered a train going part way to our destination, to Ashton Under Lyne in fact, from where we could catch a bus. So off we trotted, out through the barrier, in through another, up some stairs and over a bridge. And then came the announcement that the previously cancelled train was now running and ready to depart. So back over the bridge, down the stairs, out of one barrier and in through another we went. And we sat in the train for ten minutes before it finally departed! And it was so crowded that we never saw the guard! 

It’s exhausting getting around by train!

Monday, 5 November 2012

Contrasts and comparisons

I’ve always been rather fond of the Spanish ¿ and ¡. My Spanish teacher of long ago – a splendidly eccentric lady who once told us she had been trapped in the Alhambra Palace gardens by a guide who wanted to have his wicked way with her – always used to say that the upside down question mark or exclamation mark was intended to give advance warning of a question or exclamation on the way, just around the corner as it were. It always sounded good to me. 

(Needless to say, she resisted the guide’s attempted seduction and escaped with her virtue intact and her ego rather flattered. She was also prone to tell us girls that we were noisy but lovable; I try to imagine a teacher in a modern school saying such a preposterous thing to a class of 14 year olds. On another occasion, when a friend of mine had piled her long hair in curls on top of her head, a style fashionable for a while in the 1960s, our Miss Brown was heard to ask her if she really felt old enough to “put her hair up”. Was 17 not still a little young for such adult hairdos?)

Anyway, I was amused to see the upside down exclamation mark transferred into English punctuation by whoever did the translation work for MediaMarkt in the A Laxe shopping centre, inviting customers, in English: ¡¡¡Look at our prices!!!! Wonderful!!! 

Well, yesterday we said goodbye to Galicia for a while. Conscious that we were going to spend a good deal of time sitting around Oporto airport and then sitting in a plane, we were glad to be able to walk to Vigo bus station to catch the bus to the airport. Trundling our suitcases along pavements which appeared to have been deliberately laid for maximum noise from suitcase wheels we felt rather sorry for anyone hoping to have a quiet Sunday morning lie-in! 

En route we went past a cafe in the Calvario district of Vigo which had a large laminated cardboard owl fixed to the top of its awning. Clearly another attempt to scare off the pigeons and seagulls that try to scavenge scraps form terraza tables. Usually they are large plastic models rather than a cardboard cut-out or more-than-life-size photograph. Our friend Colin  has one he sometimes carries down to Pontevedra to give him some peace as he sits outside a cafe. If a cardboard cut-out works, maybe this would be a more portable solution for him. 

In the airport I took this photo of a cup of coffee. Why? Because this was described as “grande”. For the Portuguese, a coffee this size – comparing it with the Kitkat alongside the cup, you can see that it is not huge – is large. In the UK, in almost any coffee-vending establishment, this would be considered small, if not very small. That is one of the differences between the UK and most of continental Europe as far as I can see. 

 I have also been doing some price comparison: prices of stuff that you buy all the time to stock your kitchen. As far as I can tell, milk – proper fresh milk, not the nasty sterilised stuff – is cheaper in the UK; in Vigo I paid 82 céntimos for a litre while here I pay just a little more for a 2-pint bottle. Maybe this is because in this country people actually use more of the real stuff whereas in Spain many people seem quite happy to use the inferior sterilised kind. 

On the other hand most fruit and quite a lot of veg is cheaper in Spain. Then there’s the way it’s sold. Here you buy individual oranges, grapefruit, avocados and so on, same price per item no matter that one orange, for example, may be bigger or smaller than another. In Spain you pay for fruit by weight: three oranges in a bag and the price is sorted according to weight. This even applies to garlic. A much better system if you ask me! I’ll look out for other price comparisons. 

Final contrast; we have had a day of crisp, cold sunshine while my Vigo friends on Facebook tell me they have had miserable rain. So it goes.

Friday, 2 November 2012

The stress of getting in touch.

Before we head back for the UK on Sunday, we wanted to have lunch with an old friend. Would that be possible? Yes. Could we maybe find a time when his wife was also free? (Last time we came she was always busy working and we saw very little of her.) Well, it turned out that her place of work was “making a bridge” – a Spanish expression for extending a public holiday (yesterday was All Saints) to make a long weekend. So Friday – today – looked good. Would the children be along too? Yes, their school was also making a bridge. 

As a result we decided to see if another friend would like to join us. He is back working in Vigo and his wife and children have been visiting this week as it’s half term back in Ireland. We thought it would be good for the children to get together. 

It’s amazing how difficult it can be to organise things like this. The so-called “social media” are supposed to make it all easy. Young people manage to organise botellón and gate-crashing parties with ease. I however was having problems. 

At various points both friends’ phones sent me to “Buzón Movistar”, the answering service, telling me that “mobile number xxxxxxxxx was switched off or out of service” and asking me to leave a message. I left messages ... to no avail. 

I also sent emails and sent messages on Facebook. Oh, yes, and texts asking them to read their messages. 

Eventually all parties got in touch but, boy, was it hard work! Am I getting too old for social media? No, surely not! 

In the end we had lunch just with the first friend and his family as the second had work commitments which kept him and his gang away. This was a shame as we went to the Cata & Come restaurant in Bouzas where there is a nice safe space for small people to run around and play. And, what’s more, the sun shone! At least over lunchtime. 

On our way home we saw the cruise liner “Independence of the Seas” towering over the A Laxe shopping centre: truly an amazing thing! Two monstrosities together! 

We popped into the shopping centre to look at electrical good in MediaMarkt and serendipitously missed the rainstorm. 

We came out in time for the rainbow. 
That was fine! Who needs a pot of gold when you’ve got the rainbow?