Monday, 30 September 2013

Travel trials and tribulations.

Like sensible seasoned travellers we booked our tickets in advance for the AUTNA bus from Vigo to Porto for the first stage of yesterday’s journey back to the UK. You can pay on the bus but there’s always a chance that the bus could be full, as I was helpfully told by someone at the bus station in Pontevedra, who then unhelpfully couldn’t actually sell me a ticket or suggest where I might buy one. But that’s an old story, already told. 

We got to the bus station 10 or 15 minutes before the bus was due to leave. It was just pulling in, having come from Santiago via Pontevedra. There was quite a queue there, including an old dear who was shrieking “¡Emiiiilioooooo!” at the top of her voice. As you might expect, this was her husband, who had wandered off just at the crucial moment when he was needed to put the case in the luggage compartment. Someone helped out and the old chap turned up. All was well there then! 

This was rather less the case with the bus queue, which seemed to be at a standstill. As the AUTNA website advises people to buy tickets in advance, it might not have been unreasonable for the bus driver to ask those who had tickets already to come to the front and board the bus. But you have to remember that “España es diferente” and when they decide to form a queue, even a rather bunchy kind of queue like that one, then they will jolly well keep to it. So, one by one, would-be passengers got on the bus (or at least the step onto the bus), had a chat with the driver, watched him wave his arms around (at one point it looked as though he was explaining the route we were about to take) and finally gave him some money. He then wrote details down on a ticket pad, the old style with a carbon copy for the company to keep, not even a ticket machine with a few buttons to press. And then he had a little rant about the fact that everyone was giving him €20 notes. He wondered aloud if someone was giving them away on Vigo bus station as so many people had them. When we finally made it onto the steps of the bus and I ostentatiously held my printed tickets where they could be easily spotted, he actually let us go ahead of some passengers waiting to change their €20 notes. 

Phew! What a relief! 

Of course, our allocated seats were already taken but there was plenty of room so we were not going to make a fuss. (However, we were ready, arguments marshalled, in case anyone else came along and accused us of being in their seats.) And finally, almost 45 minutes after the bus arrived in the station, and 15 minutes after the planned departure time, we were off! At full speed! One poor, foolish woman who decided to change her seat at the last moment was thrown down as the bus lurched round a bend. Some people called out to the driver, who took no notice whatsoever, but the lady appeared to be fine and we continued on our way, making sure our seatbelts were securely fastened, just in case! 

We had a longish wait in the airport, the tedium little relieved by the fact that the much vaunted free access to internet was not working properly. If you wanted to find nonsense about football players and other suchlike things they worked fine. I know this because I witnessed people doing just that. If, on the other hand, you wanted to check your email the machines threw up error messages. I watched one person after another settle down, try to log on, get up and try another computer and finally walk away in frustration. How hard would it be to have an airport employee check the facilities every so often to make sure they work? After all, they check the loos at regular intervals. It could be part of a job creation scheme. There must be a computer geek around who would love to have job at the airport. 

 On the other hand, Porto’s Sa Carneiro airport does have some nice touches. Sometimes there have been musical ensembles playing in the departures lounge. This time it was art installations, including these rather interesting examples of Portuguese “guitarras” turned into visual pieces. 

One way or another, we passed the time until our flight was ready to board. For once our cases were neither weighed nor subjected to the Ryanair “can your bag fit into this space?” test. The staff did, however, make several people combine their two pieces of hand luggage into one. Fair enough! If you travel with Ryanair you know they have their rules and regulations. “One piece of hand luggage” means just that. It doesn’t mean “a small case or holdall + my handbag” or “a sports bag + this little rucksack on my back”. It’s no good trying to fool them ... except by having a coat with lots of big pockets. 

So off we went, leaving rather wet and windy Portugal behind and heading for Liverpool where we were promised that the weather was better. All was going well. We appeared to be heading for another fanfare arrival, another flight arriving on time or even slightly ahead of schedule. We had even reached the point where the captain says, “Ten minutes to landing” and the “Cabin crew, take your seats for landing”. 

Except that we didn’t land. Just after that last announcement, the captain spoke again. There had been, it seemed, a problem with an earlier plane at Liverpool and they were having to inspect the runway. We could not land right then. We would have to circle around for ten minutes and then try again. 

Once the ten minutes were up, there came another announcement: the problem was persisting. Speculation about a plane that circled Liverpool forever came to mind. Was this going to be modern version of “Huis clos”, the play about Hell being other people? More seriously, we remembered a discussion we had had with our son about budget airlines’ cost-cutting, one of which involved flying with JUST enough fuel. Uh oh! 

And then the pilot informed us that we were going to land at Manchester, but just land, not disembark. The plane would refuel and we would then almost certainly head back for Liverpool. 

And off to Manchester we went, all rather tired; it was by now well past most people’s bedtime, past midnight anyway and we were about to turn into pumpkins or white mice or something. 

So we landed at Manchester. 

Before the fasten-seat-belts signs were switched off, some eager people had already grabbed their luggage from the overhead lockers and started walking down the aisle towards the exit ... only to be sent back to their seats. The captain explained that he had spoken to their head office in Dublin. No way were we getting off the plane in Manchester. Manchester was not prepared for us: no steps, no luggage handlers, no passport control officers, etcetera, etcetera. We could, however, switch on our mobile phones to let those waiting to meet us in Liverpool know what was going on. 

The man sitting next to us in our row received an apology email from Ryanair on his iPhone. That was nice. 

And we could use the bathrooms. Except that the cabin crew, who had locked the loos prior to landing, were not listening properly. They were busy texting. The first passengers to arrive at the facilities found the doors locked and assumed they were just occupied. So, being mostly British, they stood patiently in line until someone, probably of Spanish or Portuguese habits and therefore not prepared to wait patiently in line, twigged what was happening and spoke to a stewardess. 

Blessed relief for all the queue. 

Refuelling completed, we were able to take off again. Apologetically the captain asked us to listen once again to the safety announcements; this was, he told us, a legal requirement, even if we had not left the plane. At least they did not try to sell us drinks and sandwiches and duty free good. Not to mention lottery scratch cards! 

And finally, Liverpool once more. The runway was clear. We were able to land. It wasn’t raining but, boy, it did feel cold. 

 We were back in the UK ... somewhat later than planned!

Saturday, 28 September 2013

Talking of this and that.

Yesterday’s Voz de Galicia newspaper gave me the apparently shocking statistic that only – yes, only! – 51% of Spaniards of working age (25 to 64) can speak English. I wonder what percentage of Britons of working age can speak another language. Mind you when you look more closely, the article goes on to say that of that 51% only 19% can be called “competente” in the language. 

Of course, this does not stop them from translating stuff in ridiculous fashion. In Pontevedra station the other day, for instance, I saw a big cardboard poster thing advertising a kind off coffee drink (I hesitate to call it coffee) available in the station buffet. It showed some mountaineers arriving at the summit of some snow-covered peak or other. “At the top of the flavour!” declared the advert. Really! What does that mean? I am pretty sure you can say “En la cima del sabor” (la cima = the top, the summit) in Spanish but the expression is pretty meaningless in English. Probably translated by one of the 51% who think they can speak English. 

Anyway, it turns out that only Hungarians and Bulgarians are worse at learning English than the Spanish. This is, of course, only counting the countries of Europe. The French and the Portuguese do a little better at 59% and 58% respectively. But you have to be Scandinavian to do really well: 96% of Norwegians and 94% of Danes speak English. One theory is that the less likely you are to find people who speak your language around the world, the more likely you are to learn another language in order to be able to communicate. And nowadays the language of mass communication happens to be English. The British, Spanish, French and Portuguese all had empires that spread their language to other places in the world. It’s one explanation anyway. 

However, you have to admire the Spanish ability to try. Just about everyone will have a go at speaking some English to you, even if it’s just the taxi driver saying “thank you” instead of “gracias”. I also like the way they adapt foreign words to their own spelling rules. I have watched the French “croissant” go from “croisán” to “curasán”. Wonderful! And then there’s “chucrut” for “choucroute” and “froidiano” for “Freudian”. I could go on and on. 

Meanwhile, as we head back to the UK tomorrow for a while, the weather forecast for once promises better weather back in Delph than it does in Vigo. This must be a first. I commented on a taxi driver saying that this year Galicia went straight from winter to summer, missing out spring altogether. Well, the same may be happening to autumn. In a matter of days we have gone from being in the swimming pool to needing a jacket to walk down the road. OK, I exaggerate a little. It’s not really cold (17° on the billboard down the road this morning) but the road is suddenly full of fallen leaves and yesterday we had thunderstorms. As I said, skipping through the seasons. Maybe this is another, new and strange aspect of the cuts! 

Because of the rain yesterday, people collecting shoppers from Mercadona absolutely NEEDED to get as close to the doorway as possible. This led to some spectacular double-file parking, all illegal I suspect, down on Aragón. In this photo taken from our balcony, the two inner lines of cars are not driving along the road, as they might seem to be doing, but are parked!! Consistent to the last! 

The weather didn’t improve until quite late in the evening when suddenly we got a stormy-looking sunset. Such is the variety of life in Galicia.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Summertime – wintertime – changing time?

Running in the gloom this morning – yes, the cloud is still around although it’s nowhere near as cold as some of my Galician friends and acquaintances make out –the temperature reported on the advertising hoarding at the end of the road still said 18° at 9 this morning – I reflected on stuff I read in the paper last night. 

There’s a big debate going on about changing Spanish time to be in line with English and Portuguese time, one hour behind the current Spanish clocks. Apparently this used to be the case but Franco changed it, possibly feeling he had more in common with the Germans than the British. 

 Anyway they’re going on about children going to school in the dark, the same argument that’s always used in the UK to justify putting the clocks back, which will happen in just a few weeks from now. That’s rather scary, winter is really coming! 

The other point being made is about parents having fights with their children as you get into summer because they don’t see why they should go to bed while it’s still light. How do they think people in more northern countries, where the evenings in the summer are even longer, get on? And as for what happens up at the North Pole, well, goodness only knows. 

While I can understand keeping the children up so that they play in the relative cool of the evening really I’m of the old school that says children should go to bed so that parents can have some time to talk and so on. Don’t places like Italy and the south of France have the same problems? We don’t hear them going on about it. Or maybe they do go on but we just don’t know. 

The other thing, of course, is the working day. If fathers aren’t getting home from work until nine or ten at night, maybe they might want to see their children before these are packed off to bed. 

So you need to change the whole work pattern of the country. Maybe shops could open before ten. There’s a radical suggestion. After all, cafes open up at six or seven in some cases. And bread shops also start early. And is it really necessary for clothes shops and the like to be open until 9 at night? So there are proposals to change all sorts of timings. 

Is it possible, I wonder, to change the whole culture of a country in this way? A part of me says, yes indeed. After all, look how they changed shop opening hours in the UK. Sunday opening and so on. On balance though, that’s perhaps not such a good idea. Even for non church-goers, it was really nice to have that Sunday quiet. It’s one of the continuing charms of Spain. Sunday in England is little different from any other day for a lot of people. I think we probably lost out there. 

So maybe Spain should just stay as it is.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

In and out of the rain.

Well, as predicted, the rain came down, not too heavily here in Vigo although our son reported torrential rain beating on the roof of the hotel they stayed at last night in Tui. This morning I awoke to Vigo shrouded in mist, the estuary quite gone and a fine drizzly rain falling. For the first time in three months I got wet on my morning run. 

Also as I ran I heard the mournful sound of a boat’s hooter. Something unseen was arriving or leaving. I guessed it was probably a cruise liner but it wasn’t until later in the morning that this was confirmed. In fact, not one but two boats were lined up at the Estación Marítima, one quite large, but not as huge as some that turn up here, and the other relatively small. It crossed my mind that the people on the smaller boat, which had to moor a little further back towards Bouzas might feel a little miffed to be tied up behind a bigger vessel. Did they feel that they had been sold an inferior deal? Who knows? 

By the time we returned from Pontevedra early this evening, both boats were long gone. And now the sun is shining again. I suspect that the boats’ passengers only saw the grey and rainy Vigo, which is a shame because its aspect is much improved by a little sunshine. Mind you, if all you want to do is visit jewellery shops and other similar places, I don’t suppose it matters much what the weather is doing. You can look a bit foolish in your shorts and sandals, however, if it’s wet and cloudy. 

We went to Pontevedra with a dual purpose in mind. Our son and his wife were moving on there from Tui and as Phil had missed out on lunch at Bar Puerto on Friday, this gave him another chance to have lunch with them. Also we were able to meet up with our friend Colin which may be the last time we can do so before we set off back for the UK for a while on Sunday. 

So off we went, after very nearly missing our train and having had to get a taxi to the station. We had a very philosophical taxi driver. When I commented that time had run away with us, he declared that time never varies, it never runs but just plods along at its usual rate; it’s the human beings who vary their perception of time’s passing. How about that? Wise sayings and a ride to the station for under €5!! 

We had an uneventful train ride to Pontevedra. The ongoing works at the station, in preparation for the eventual arrival of the AVE, the high speed train, are coming along. Several platforms have disappeared but it is no longer a dustbowl. Like at the former station in Vigo – the one near the city centre, demolished in order to accommodate something new and strange and ultramodern – the work seems to involve a lot of tunnelling and pouring of concrete. Maybe in a year or two or three we will see the results of all this industry. 

We found Colin sitting under a sun umbrella in the rain in Plaza de Verduras, his usual lunchtime spot, and swopped comments on various news stories, principally concerning the Spanish royal family. The king has gone into hospital for surgery, presumably on the hip that he put out of action during his ill-fated elephant-hunting trip. Various newspapers are calling for his abdication, on the grounds that he will be out of action for about six months. Now, I know he’s always been quite a hands-on king but surely he isn’t essential to decision making in the running of the country. If a body is needed as a figurehead, there’s always Prince Felipe. Should he immediately become king? Thereby hangs another tale. Rumours are rife that all is not well between Felipe and his Letizia. Is a divorce imminent? Oh dear, it never rains but it pours. The house of Borbón is still having a bad time. 

We, on the other hand, had a very nice time. Our boy and his lady had booked themselves into Hotel Ruas, just on the corner of Plaza de Verduras so they were able to find us without problem. We took ourselves off to a restaurant at Cinco Ruas, a bit of the old part of Pontevedra where five roads come together, hence the name, and tucked into a range of tapas – zamburiñas, croquetas, pulpo, tortilla, setas al ajillo – washed down with a bottle of Albariño. All good stuff. 

Eventually we all said our goodbyes. The day after tomorrow the boy and his lady go to Santiago and eventually back to London. We, in the meantime, are spending the next few days running around finalising this and that before we also head back to the UK for a while. 

The sun came out as we travelled back to Vigo on the train. Which is all good, as I need to walk out now with the computer to find a place with free wifi in order to post this blog. Another sunset photo coming up. 

No, we still haven’t managed to set up a proper connection here in our Vigo flat. That’s another story which may or may not be told tomorrow.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Seeing some sights.

We’ve had our son and his wife to visit, albeit briefly. They admired the view from our balcony, especially the rather spectacular sunsets we have been having recently. And they took advantage of the continued sunshine to make use of the pool here. They then went off to have some days by the sea near Baiona and after that to visit other places in Galicia. We’ll catch up with them again tomorrow in Pontevedra. 

My friend Colin in Pontevedra has been talking in his blog about the fabulous summer weather we have been having, the long duration making up for a late start and so on. As regards the late start, a taxi driver I spoke to the other day was of the opinion that summer didn’t start late; it was just that there was no spring. We just went directly from winter to summer with no gradation. He may be right. But the long duration he did agree with. And just the day before yesterday, while out on a walk, we overheard some old dears complaining about it being much too hot. I suppose the upper 20s is a bit hot for late September. 

Anyway, it may be that Colin talking about the weather has put a hex on it. Last night the clouds and mist rolled in and for the first time in ages I felt the need for more bedclothes than just a sheet. Then this morning started with mostly blue sky and just enough cloud to provide a rather picturesque sunrise. Which lasted just long enough for me to take a photo and then faded to grey. As the day has progressed, the cloud has taken over more of the sky. We shall see. 

While our visitors were here we paid a visit to our favourite Vigo fish restaurant, Bar Puerto on Arenal. That place has become very popular recently; it’s always packed. Aware of this we had booked a table and while we were there we saw disappointed people being turned away. At just after two o’ clock one couple was told that there would be no table available until three fifteen; they were welcome to return then. 

Unfortunately Phil was unable to go with us as he had come down with some kind of stomach bug. A great pity as the food was excellent, as ever. And that was probably our last visit for a while as we are off to the UK at the weekend. 

On our way to the restaurant we were strolling along the street called García Barbón when we saw an odd sight. Scuttling along towards us, huddled up close to the buildings, was a hedgehog! A remarkably clean-looking hedgehog! As it got to the entrance to some garages, a lady bent down and scooped it up, saying to it affectionately something along the lines of , “You don’t want to go in there. Too many cars!” We then discovered that this hedgehog was her pet! Yes, her pet! No wonder it looked so clean. Hedgehogs, UK hedgehogs anyway, are notorious for having fleas so you would have to do something about that if you were keeping it in your flat. 

I’d never thought of someone having a hedgehog as a pet. But then people keep ferrets as pets in the UK and they don’t really strike me as pet material either. And hedgehogs are quite sociable in some ways. Many years ago, there used to be one that came into my father’s garden every evening at the same time and approached the back door, knowing that he would feed it. It never showed any signs of fear so maybe they could be tamed and become quite domestic after all. Not a great deal different to some of the very small dogs you see so many of around here. And taking up considerably less space than the huge dogs some people choose to have, a decision that always surprises me in this city of largely flat-dwellers. 

Life continues to be interesting!

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Being adventurous and seeing things from another angle.

When the chess conference at which we were helping came to end the delegates were taken on a boat trip to the Islas Cíes. We were invited along too. Well, we had sort of established our reputation as experts on things cultural in Galicia, at least in the English speaking section of the party. 

This was a trip to the islands with a difference. Instead of travelling on the public ferry, we were off on a sail boat, specially hired for the occasion. I think we were almost too big a group for the boat but we managed to squeeze everyone on board. The other big difference for us was that instead of approaching the islands from Vigo, which is what Phil and I have always done, we were approaching from Baiona. A totally new perspective for us. 

 And then, because the trip was arranged on the last minute we were really only going to sail round the islands and do a circuit of the bay of Baiona. But Phil and I had done the publicity for the islands, telling everyone about the Playa de Rodas being voted the best beach in the world and the delegates really wanted to see it, even if only from a distance. There was some discussion about whether it was the Guardian newspaper or the Times which had organised the voting. We were adamant it was the Guardian but one of the delegates felt that this newspaper was too “leftish” to do such a thing. Can left-wingers not enjoy beaches? 

Anyway, we set off on what turned out to be a rather slow and cold journey out to the islands. Fortunately we had been warned to take extra layers. Most had done so but even so the wind in the bay was fresh, to say the least. As we approached the islands requests began to be made to possibly, maybe, if it was all right, land on the bigger island. After some umming and ahhing, our captain gave in and agreed to land, VERY briefly as he was doing this illegally. He had no permit to land on this occasion and he didn’t want to get in the way of the ferry boats. 

Consequently he planned to moor at the furthest end of the jetty, away from the side places where the ferry boats dock. There then followed a good three quarters of an hour of manoeuvring to get the boat in position. Each time it seemed to be right, the current moved us around some more. And the captain was trying to avoid rubbing up against the tyres tied to the dock to cushion collisions. This was nothing to do with safety. If he rubbed against them, his white boat would get covered in black streaks which were, he told me, the devil’s own job to remove. 

Eventually, after much dangerous-looking leaning out of the boat to push it off the jetty and equally dangerous-looking leaping around to get mooring ropes in place, the boat was tied up. There was a gap about a metre wide between the side of the boat and the steps, rather wet and slippery-looking in my opinion, up to the top of the jetty. The gap narrowed and widened as the boat moved. Phil and I opted to stay on board. We’ve been on the islands before and if this was only going to be a ten-minute visit it really didn’t seem worth risking an unplanned dip in the Atlantic. 

The captain’s mate took advantage of the landfall to get out bottles of wine, tortilla, empanada, bread and who knows what else: a little merienda. Our boat became subject to a lot of tourist interest. We have no doubt figured in a number of people’s holiday snaps! 

Just as everyone got back on board, a ferry from Vigo arrived, leading to a small altercation between our captain and their captain but we managed to escape without being impounded by coastguards. 

We did not, however, set off properly. As our party sipped wine and nibbled on the food provided, we rocked around just off the islands and the captain’s mate got his guitar out and sang to everyone. My goodness, this was indeed a trip with a difference. 

Finally we set off properly back towards Baiona. It was about time. Some people were rather “mareado”, seasick, and more than a little cold. Instead of relying on the motor for the return trip, our captain put his sail up and we fairly rattled across the water, maybe a little too speedily for those who were feeling the adverse influence of the waves. 
It’s amazing how being in a sailboat brings out the jack tar in quite a lot of men. Most wanted to help push the boat off the side of the jetty to prevent collision with the dirty black tyres. Some daringly leapt across the gap between the boat and the jetty to help tie up the mooring lines. Others determinedly pulled on the rope to help hoist the sail. It was most impressive! And I haven’t even included those who scuttled around on deck to stand in impossible places in order to take photos. I was very sensible and sat still, I have to say. 

Despite all this derring-do, we managed to get back to Baiona safely. We lived to tell the tale and even managed to get our finely on and go out for a farewell meal in a posh Nigrán restaurant later that evening. 

Another adventure over. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

I’m back.

Well, I have finally managed to get the computer for more than the time it takes to check email and Facebook. It has been practically impossible to wrestle it away from Phil who has been insisting on the need for him to complete this, that or the other task of translating or chess administration. And then every time I thought I could get my hands on the keyboard something came up that we just had to do. Hence my blog silence over the last few days. 

We have been in Baiona, staying in a rather swanky hotel, all expenses paid, on hand to help out with any language problems at an international meeting of big wheels in European chess. In the event they needed very little by way of translation / interpreting services but the organisers seemed happy to have us around. The chess pundits spoke a range of languages from Rumanian to Hebrew, going through Greek, Serbian, Polish, Bulgarian and who knows what else. All of them, as it turned out, communicated with each other in English but few of them had any Spanish, which is why occasionally they needed us to pass on messages and sort things in the hotel. 

The hotel was fine and the food pretty but not quite as good as you might have expected. The hotel is equipped with seawater spa facilities, which I was enthusiastically encouraged to try out. I was told repeatedly how marvellous they were so I decided to give them a go. Maybe I’m missing something but after just under half an hour of sitting in hot seawater, moving to the jacuzzi section, standing under waterfalls to release tension in my shoulders and sitting, standing or reclining in various bubbly places, but not really able to do much swimming because all the bubbling places got in the way, I was bored stiff. I was getting more tense as a result of all the relaxing. Maybe I needed a friend to chat to while I bubbled!!! But I think this spa stuff is just not my thing. 

On our first day in the hotel there was a knock on our door. On opening it I saw one of the hotel staff with a bottle of Cava in an ice bucket and a basket of fruit. “Un obsequio del hotel”. How nice! We had no time to eat or drink as we were due to accompany chess pundits to Baiona and show them the fortifications and the replica caravel, la Pinta, a copy of one of the tiny ships in which Columbus and co discovered America. (La Pinta announced the news first at Baiona so that’s why the replica boat is there.) We had a very pleasant stroll around the port of Baiona and some of the old quarter and then headed back to the hotel. In our room, where the Cava and fruit had been, there was an empty space. Disappeared!! Wrong room apparently. Only the pundits got the gift, not humble helpers. 

We were amused but someone must have thought that we might be offended as the next day another “obsequio” arrived: a half bottle of Cava and a tray of bits of fruit and nuts covered in chocolate. Having checked with the poor delivery girl, who had seemingly been blamed for the previous day’s confusion, we consumed it all before anyone could come and reclaim it! 

One of Monday’s events was a “simultaneous” on Príncipe, the pedestrianised shopping street in Vigo centre. Several well-known strong, local chess players took on more or less all comers, each playing twenty games at a time and winning most of them. Very impressive! 

I wonder if you could do it on Market Street in central Manchester. It’s another pedestrianised shopping street, after all. Mind you, it would probably rain, uncomfortable for the players and not very conducive for spectators. Whereas in Vigo it was hot and sunny. 
While this was coming to a close a presentation about chess in schools was going on in the Marco Museum just behind all the chess boards. We skipped that and helped some of our visitors to buy stuff on Príncipe before sitting down to a refresco. Then we all had to hop on a special bus to go to Castrelos Park at the other end of town for a reception with local bigwigs. 

We got to the park and the bus went past and seemed to get lost. When we offered the driver a map, our organiser told us that we were in fact just losing time. Like a plane circling round an airport until a landing slot was available, we were driving around waiting to be told that the guests of honour, aka local bigwigs, had arrived at the Pazo de Quiñones de León, the stately home in the middle of the park. It would never do for us to arrive first as they needed to shake hands with chess pundits on arrival. 

 I was given to understand that I was expected to act as interpreter while the head pundit and then the deputy mayor made speeches. So I was ushered to a place to one side of the dais and waited. The head pundit told me he didn’t need me. Hardly surprising as he speaks Spanish. So I fully expected him to repeat his Spanish speech in English for the benefit of his fellow pundits. But no, he just spoke in Spanish and handed over to the deputy mayor who also spoke, at length and without any pauses for interpretation. For a brief moment I feared that I might be expected to remember all the points he had made and summarise in English. However, he merely declared the festivities open and the serving ladies started to offer glasses of wine to everyone. So it’s quite likely that I have appeared in press photos and people will be wondering who is the spare part standing on one side. 

 Back at the hotel a surprise had been prepared for the chess pundits. Everyone was urged to go up to their rooms for a jacket of some kind and then to meet on the terraza where the surprise awaited: “una queimada” (aka “una quemada” in Castilian Spanish). This is a Galician speciality. You take some “orujo”, the local firewater, and put it in an earthenware bowl with sliced of lemon, coffee beans and sugar. Then you set it alight. When the fire dies down, you drink what is essentially mulled “orujo”. Quite spectacular! I suppose most of the alcohol is burnt off but it still tastes quite potent. 

The first time I saw this fire ceremony it was accompanied by people dressed as “meigas” (Galician witches), wizards and assorted dancers, as well as a major wizard intoning some kind of mumbo jumbo. 

 Somebody commented this time that you can’t visit Galicia without trying “una queimada” – “No se puede visitar Galicia sin probar una queimada”. There you go!

Friday, 13 September 2013


Over the last few days I have had to contend with traffic on my morning run. This is unusual. My run takes me uphill through the start of the San Xoan do Monte district of Vigo, behind our blocks of flats and eventually down by the Carrefour shopping centre and back onto Aragón, allowing me to stop at the bread shop and discuss weather with the panadera. Usually it’s very quiet but since the children went back to school earlier this week it’s been full of cars, many of them parked on the pedestrian stripes at the side of the road, rendering my route a little dangerous at the corner just before the school. Today there was even a small traffic jam for a few minutes as parents stopped to drop their offspring at school. 

 This is clearly not the case for little Chelsea, whom I read about in La Voz de Galicia last night. Little Chelsea has started school in Seixalbo, a little place somewhere near Ourense. She lives in another little place called San Sibrao. There is a bus to and from school but because she has just started and is going through a “período de transición” she only attends two hours a day for the first week and finishes school before the bus service runs. Consequently her mother, who has no car, walks three kilometres to school to collect little Chelsea and then walks her back three kilometres home, rather a long way for a small girl. Daft, I call it! 

By the way, how does a small Spanish girl come to be called Chelsea? What’s wrong with good Spanish names like Carmen and Rocío and María Isabel? I think her mother, whose name is Mauri by the way, must have been reading the wrong books and magazines and watching the wrong TV programmes. 

And then, this morning I saw a father arrive at school with his remarkably small daughter on the back of his scooter – ok, she did have a helmet on – and perched in front of him was her school bag. Of course, they all have those wheelie bags, like Ryanair hand-luggage, that look almost big enough to carry the child let alone their lunchbox and school books! This child was so small that she had difficulty reaching up to kiss her papá goodbye. Needless to say, he didn’t get off his scooter but just watched trot confidently through the gate pulling her bag behind her. 

I didn’t actually run yesterday, a fact commented on by my panadera. This was because I was going to the station to meet my young friend Sara, one of the 6% extra “auxiliares de lengua” I mentioned the other day. She’s going to be working in a school in the outskirts of Santiago again, like she did last year. 

We had arranged to go off to the Islas Cíes for the day, before the boats stop running for the winter. This photo below is of the smaller island which you can't visit on the normal boat trip. I think you need special permission and a private boat for that. But it doesn't stop you taking pictures as you walk up to the lighthouse.

I had bought the tickets on Wednesday to be sure of getting them. It’s very frustrating to meet someone, go to the ticket office and then discover that the boat is full. Not so likely to happen in September but, better safe than sorry! 

I had to give them my passport number when I bought the tickets. Why is that? Are the Islas Cíes a foreign country? Are they going to count the grains of sand and then chase up all the people who visited on a particular day so that they can reclaim them? Another administrative mystery! 

Anyway, we got there safely. We trekked up to the lighthouse, stopping en route to find Sara lodging in a small cave. 

Then we even made it into the sea, which was COLD! Not unexpectedly so, of course, and we are both from northern climes so we are used to cold sea water. 
What we didn’t manage was a proper meal, having spent too long swimming, sunning and chatting on the beach. By the time we got to the restaurant by the campsite they had stopped serving lunch. So we made do with an ice cream. At the place by the harbour there was a notice saying they stopped serving tapas at three o’ clock but there was a huge slab of empanada on the counter and they were quite prepared to let us have a ración. So we didn’t starve. The overall verdict was that we had a good day. 

 Today there has been considerable traffic on the estuary. A huge cruise liner turned up at nine o’clock or thereabouts. Later I noticed an enormous yacht parked behind it, not quite as substantial but almost as long as the cruise ship. And then there was one of those planes from the fire service, dipping down to the bay, picking up a load of water and flying off to dump it on a fire somewhere. 

 For a while the place was quite buzzing with activity. I’m not sure I can stand the excitement!

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Advertising, education and aging.

On the outer door to our block of flats is a notice: NO SE ADMITE PUBLICIDAD. In other words, no advertising material is supposed to be allowed. I say “supposed to be allowed” because our letter boxes are always stuffed with leaflets of all kinds. How does this happen? Well, when we first visited this flat the outer door was locked. For a good while now that lock has not been working. In fact the door is often left wide open. No-one can get into the building as the inner door is locked but it’s an open invitation to anyone who wants to come and put all kinds of nonsense in the postboxes. 

 Amongst the nonsense I found a flier for Profesor Sali, “Famoso vidente”, a famous seer. He claims that there is no problem without solution and offers to deal with anything from finding work to curing sexual impotence, going through evil eye (mal de ojo in Spanish) and getting rid of evil spirits. Perhaps the government of the Spain, if not of every country, should approach him to sort out the state the world has got into. I didn’t know that people still believed in such things but he must get enough customers to make it worth his while to pay for advertising. It’s like a step back in time to my mother always buying “lucky” heather from the gypsies to prevent them from putting the evil eye on her. But then I suppose that in difficult times people will turn to almost any means of solving their problems. 

 Another step back in time was reported in an article in La Voz de Galicia the other day. Small village schools are having to combine age groups in their classes as there are not enough pupils to justify separate teachers. One elderly lady commented that it was like when she was a girl and the village school just had one class for everyone. Shades of Laurie Lee’s school in “Cider with Rosie” or in fact the school my mother said that she attended in darkest Yorkshire. Primary school numbers are down generally in Galicia, however. It’s not just country places. Even though I still see lots of people pushing prams around here, the numbers of children starting school here has been going down steadily since 2011. 

In contrast, the numbers staying on after age 16 to do Bachillerato and particularly to do Formación Profesional, vocational training courses, has continued to rise. Hardly surprising given the high rate of youth unemployment. 

All the bookshops are full of text books for the coming year, about to start tomorrow for the little ones and next Monday for the secondary school students and beyond. I swear this is what keeps so many small bookshops open in this country while they are closing down at a furious rate of knots in the UK. It must be quite daunting to have a buy a huge pile of school books every September, especially as it is rare for the same books to be used the following year, making it impossible to recycle big brother’s books for use by younger siblings. On the plus side, I read that more and more “bancos de libros de textos”, book banks, are being set up to help needy families. 

Also on the increase (up by 23%) are “centros plurilingües”, schools which teach lessons in more than one language, usually Castilian Spanish/Galician but increasingly English as well. This has led to a related increase (smaller at 6% but still an increase) in the use of “auxiliares de conversación”, which we used to call “assistants”, French style, as most schools using them were in France. More employment here for my former students then. All good. 

What’s more, according to this article  Galicia is guaranteeing itself a generation of long-lived people. (Do they really want that? I wonder, given the current unemployment situation and the resulting shortage of tax payers to fund the pensions of the aged. Oh, how complicated life is.) 

Be that as it may, from what I read in the above-mentioned article, being able to switch from one language to another is a strong factor in keeping the brain active and staving off aging. Other things are running, walking and swimming. Well, I do all of those so I plan to be writing this blog when I’m ninety-odd!

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Errant apostrophes and other matters.

Back in July we saw an odd little train parked up at the station in Pontevedra. It only had a couple of carriages and was gaily painted, letting us know that it would follow the Route of the Camellia’s Gardens (their apostrophe not mine). It didn’t seem to be going anywhere however. 

 Well, on Thursday when we went to the station in Vigo to catch the 7.30 train to Pontevedra, we were directed to platform 13 and there it was, the same funny little train. I couldn’t quite believe it was the one we were intended to catch so I checked with a station employee. Yes, that was our train. I heard someone else asking about it when we stopped in Redondela so it wasn’t just me who found it odd. 

It was after Redondela that the train seemed to diverge from the usual route. There seemed to be rather more tunnels than usual and I suppose it was fairly picturesque but I can’t say I saw a lot of camellias. It puffed and wheezed along the track and took rather longer than usual to make the journey. But it didn’t cost any more than usual and we weren’t in a tearing hurry. 

Our return journey on Friday was on a normal train. Fewer tunnels! And faster! 

So we left Pontevedra preparing for the Feira Franca which we weren’t stopping to participate in. The town was being “medievalised”. Artificial fortifications were being put up with cardboard cut-out soldiers standing on top of archways. For some reason there is a belief that the streets of medieval towns were draped with lengths of blue and purple cloth but I suppose this was just an alternative to bunting. Various shops were selling or hiring medieval costumes for those who wished to take part fully in the festivities. We’ve seen it before though and so we decided not to stay. 

Beggars were out in force in Plaza de Verduras where we stopped for a drink with out friend Colin before making our way to the station. Some of these were amazingly well dressed, one wearing Nike sports gear. Maybe begging pays well. 

Certainly, as we walked to the station we crossed paths with that same beggar, still holding out his begging pot to us but in his other hand he had his bag of shopping from the Eroski supermarket. Clearly his morning’s takings had been enough to pay for lunch. 

Back in Vigo we saw not one but two neatly dressed, respectable looking people stoop and pick up cigarette ends from the street. One of them even paused to light the one he had collected. Yet they looked like perfectly normal people. I confess to being shocked! 

On the other hand, our supermarket beggar, usually vociferous in her demands for “una ayuda, por Diós” in the Mercadona doorway, seems to have disappeared. Maybe she has gone on holiday on the proceeds. 

Oh, I know that here are some real cases of hardship around and I have every sympathy and do give money from time to time. But some of them do seem far too plump and prosperous to be asking for my money. 

Today we took a windy walk up to the Castro Park, the first time I’ve been up there in a while. It’s beginning to look a little autumnal. We must take advantage of the remaining sunny days while we can. 

On the way we went past the would-be exclusive school “O Castro” or as their gateway calls it “Escuela O’Castro”. Where did that apostrophe come from? Is it not named for the Castro after all? Is it perhaps run by an Irishman called O’Castro? I was always given to understand that “o” is the Gallego definite article and, therefore that the name of the school means “The Castle”. Maybe I am mistaken. Who knows? 

I have just realised that I have gone on about two apostrophes in this post. It must be time for me to stop for today.

Friday, 6 September 2013

Saying it correctly.

Yesterday it rained, briefly it’s true, but still it did rain. My panadera was thus proved correct once again. The other day she told me that we were due for some rain. She knew this because her wonky hip was playing up. Throughout the hot, dry weather she has had no problems but whenever some damp weather is due she has problems apparently. Funnily enough we had seen her the previous evening and assumed that she was hobbling a little because she was wearing cripplingly high heels. Clearly this was not the reason. Mind you, I do wonder why someone whose hip was giving her gyp would choose to wear ridiculously high heels. Maybe I am too sensible. 

Be that as it may, I have decided that my panadera is a little like those “rain detectors” they used to give away in children’s comics back in the 1950s. Usually they were a cardboard American Indian’s head, given a silly name like “Big Chief Rain in the Face”. You were supposed to hang it in the porch and, because it was treated with some chemical or other, it would change colour if rain was on the way. Maybe my panadera’s hip serves a similar purpose. Or maybe she is some kind of witch, a “meiga”, the good kind of Galician witch. 

Whatever the reason, it was strange to get up to grey skies yesterday after weeks of blue skies. The sun didn’t manage to break through until early evening when we set off for the station to go to Pontevedra. More rain, proper rain, is forecast for the weekend, but today the sky is blue once again, at least in Pontevedra, although there is a little haze around. We shall see what happens with the rest of the day. 

Over in the UK fog caused a huge pile-up in Kent yesterday morning, more than 100 cars and lorries crashing into each other. Perhaps the fog was a more extreme version of the cloud cover we had here. Amazingly no-one was killed. People who became aware of what was happening and pulled off the road report hearing one clunk after another as cars collided. If they were able to realise that something was wrong, why did so many continue to plough into the foggy mess? 

Anyway, we came to Pontevedra to go to the Pitillo restaurant, one of our favourite tapas places in the area. You sit outside at tables in the street and see people queuing up to take your place as soon as you finish. The owners are about to go on holiday and close the place for a month so this was one of our last chances to eat there this summer. Their seafood was excellent as usual and we were plied with “chupitos”, local liqueurs, at the end of our meal. 

We were also amused by a Spanish friend correcting our friend Colin’s pronunciation of the name of the restaurant. I could hear little difference between his pronunciation and mine but our Spanish friend clearly did. It’s a native speaker thing. Anyway, it entertained us for a while and a good time was had by all. 

Later at Colin’s house, as we watched a late night TV show, we suddenly became aware that a small bat was circling around the back of the room, much to my discomfort as I really do not like things flying around indoors. Fortunately, it disappeared, probably through a door into the garage but it could be hanging around somewhere for all we know. How strange! How did it get in? And has the poor lost creature managed to escape? 

Today we head back to Vigo where I am helping a chess-playing friend of Phil’s prepare for the re-sit of his English speaking exam. He passed reading, writing and listening but messed up the spoken test. I can’t say I am surprised at this. First of all because he has some problems with English pronunciation but also because of the nature of the test. One task is something that I, when I worked a teacher of French and Spanish, would call a “role play” but which the Escuela de Idiomas calls an “interaction”. This involves a discussion about something such what kind of summer job the candidate would like to choose. Now, in my experience the examiner usually plays the other part in such a role play and thus can introduce a “surprise element” to which the candidate must react. But no, in this case, the other role is played by another candidate and the examiner simply listens and marks. I’m sure this works fine if both candidates are good and confident. But if one candidate is not so good, surely he must prevent his “partner” from showing off to the best of his ability? 

But who am I to criticise the Escuela de Idiomas?

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Rules and regulations.

Weeks ago, before we went off to Pontevedra for Phil to play in a chess tournament, two of the four lifts in our block of flats were out of action. That had been going on for about two weeks when we set off. When Phil went back, while I went to the UK, they had been repaired. Within a week one of them was out of service once again. Sorry, Otis, the lift company, this is not good enough! If I have to go up to the seventh floor on foot, I won’t be pleased. 

In the lift that works a new notice has appeared. The comunidad committee has been busy again. This time they are telling us that it is strictly forbidden to throw stuff out of the windows. I have often thought this was an antisocial habit so I’m all in favour of such a ruling. Apparently someone had a plant pot catch fire on their balcony when a cigarette end landed in it. I imagine the pot plant must have been pretty dry for that to happen but even so, it must have been rather frightening. 

The language of the notice was impressive. We were told it was “terminantemente prohibido” to throw things, especially cigarette ends, out of windows. It means “totally forbidden” but somehow it sounds very final. I wonder what sanctions will be imposed if anyone disobeys the new rule. Forbidden to use the pool? Forbidden to open windows? 

 In general the Spanish are very good at formal language. I love the notices in shops and restaurants which begin “Se ruega a los señores clientes ....” – “Our esteemed customers are requested to ...”. 

Down in Vigo, it seems as though the Americans may be taking over. There’s an ice cream parlour cum burger bar called “Mel’s” on Rosalía de Castro, announcing that it sells “burgers, fries and shakes”. No wonder Spaniards find it relatively easy to learn English, well, American, vocabulary. And then on Friday I spotted in the A Laxe shopping centre, just near the MediaMarkt, a shop called “Alimentos Americanos de Importación”. Imported American foodstuffs include, inevitably, Hershey Bars, as well as lots of other sweets, umpteen kinds of ketchup and masses of gluten free products. Are Americans in Galicia really so concerned about eating American stuff? 

Finally, luggage. 

We usually travel hand-luggage only, which limits us to 10 kilos each. Consequently we always have a few moments of stress, weighing cases and deciding what can go in pockets and so on. Well, I’ve just been reading a novel called “A Sport and a Pastime” by a writer called James Salter. It’s set in the early sixties. At one point our hero is setting off back to the United States, after a love affair in France. 

Here is a passage that struck me: 

 “We weigh his bags in the station. Twenty two kilos. We multiply it out, he’s a few pounds overweight. When he arrives at the airport he can take some things out and put them in his pockets.” 

There you go, they had fridges before we did, fitted kitchens before we did and even strategies for dealing with overweight luggage before we did!

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Levels of satisfaction

Some time ago I read an article which maintained that Spain is the Eurozone country which uses most €500 notes. It’s something to do with their portability. When we first came to live here for an extended period the estate agent we dealt with regularly carried huge amounts of cash in her handbag, one of the copious kind of course and firmly clasped and carried across her body to prevent bag-snatching. However, she could not have carried so much had she not carried much of it in €500 notes. 

They’re also useful, so I understand, for money laundering. I once saw an elegantly dressed but quite ancient lady in a supermarket in Sanxenxo hand over a €500 note to pay for goods to the value of less than €10. Maybe she was the head of a Galician mafia gang or at the very least the aged grandmother of the head of such a gang. All credit to the cashier, she did not bat an eyelid but merely called her supervisor to provide her with more change. 

Well, this morning I felt rather like the wife of Walter White in the TV series “Breaking Bad” organising ways to launder his drug-generated income. Why was this? It was hitting the wall of bureaucracy when I tried to open a bank account. 

To open an account in an English bank you take along proof of identity and some utility bills to prove that you live at the address you give them. At least it was so the last time I saw anyone doing it. 

 I knew that I would need my NIE – Número de Identificación de Extranjero – and I had along my passport as well. I even took along the contract for our flat just in case I needed to demonstrate where I live. But then I was asked for a “certificado de ingresos” – a proof of income (?). So I explained that I wanted to put in a sum of money and that we would be transferring a greater amount when Phil gets paid for his translation work. Failing that we would arrange to transfer some from our account in England. Ah, but they need a “certifcado de ingresos” so that they can show where the money comes from. 

This is where I began to feel like a money launderer. So we went through the whole thing about not having a source of income in Spain but a pension in England. OK, so show them a pension certificate so that they know where the money comes from!!! 

And then there’s the question of taxes. If I’m not paying taxes in Spain I am not fully resident. Well, yes, that’s true. So now it seems I need a “Certificado Consular” in order to open a bank account, presumably proving that I am not some kind of criminal. 

Of course, you have to remember that this is a country where corruption in high places is rife. So I expect it’s normal to check up on the little people. Corruption has to start somewhere after all. And it’s easier to badger the little people than the big ones. 

All of these negotiations with the bank were dealt with in a bad-cop/good-cop manner with two bank employees. The first person I spoke to was blunt and gruff in her manner and simply made it clear I was getting nowhere. It has been suggested to me that maybe she was Basque!! Her politer, more softly spoken colleague entered the conversation after dealing with another customer and did that thing they do of asking your name so that they can be more intimate in their conversation with you. But she still gave the same message. I was not opening a bank account without a pile of documentation. And finally she asked if she could photocopy my NIE. Why? Because they need to document all proceedings. Even inconclusive ones like mine? My paranoia is beginning to run wild! 

Oh, and she then told me that a bank account here would cost me around €60 a year in bank charges. Unless, that is, I put in €12,000 in cash or €5000 in bank shares!!! 

 The irony of it is that we had a bank account which we closed a year after returning to England precisely because they were leaching away our money in bank charges. 

And the only reason I want a bank account is so that we can get a contract with an internet provider, paying monthly by standing order, instead of using the mobile internet dongle we have at present. 

Life is complicated at times. And all of this went on before nine o’clock in the morning. 

After that the day got better. Especially when we went out later to meet our friend Colin for lunch at El Puerto restaurant where we ate a range of tasty fishy dishes. Here they are.