Sunday, 29 November 2015

Events, food, art and life being odder than art!

Sitting in the Centro de Artes e Espectáculos in Figueira today waiting for a Rapidplay Chess competition to begin, I spotted a lady knitting. Presumably she too had accompanied someone there to play chess and had brought her knitting along. No point in wasting time, after all. It's years since I saw anyone knitting at a chess event but then I don't often sit around at chess events these day. As a rule I go walkabout and leave Phil to it. 

The centre is very pleasant, a light and airy modern building. Lots of glass and exposed girders. Art works displayed all over the place. One mother was entertaining her children by doing numerous journeys up to the next floor in the glass lift, all of them waving to friends as they went. I must admit to being tempted to join them. Glass lifts are always very impressive in my opinion. In the Football Museum in Manchester, the lift is like a cable car. But probably my favourite glass lift is the one that goes up the outside of the Reina Sofía art gallery in Madrid. 

Upstairs at the Centro de Artes e Espectáculos there is an exhibition of work by Fernando Dereito, who is an artist who lives and works in Lisbon. I googled him but did not find much information apart from the fact that he was born in 1944 and began his career in Mozambique. Here are some examples of his work displayed here in Figueira. 

Here's a picture of a splendid old cine camera which you can see on the first floor. 

There is a large auditorium up there as well where presumably they have concerts from time to time. Who knew that all this was there? We have walked past this building many times and assumed it was a school, which is why we have never visited it before. 

Yesterday afternoon was the last round of the main chess event here. After the prize giving ceremony, an affair of lengthy speeches in Portuguese, thanking all the local gentry and hoteliers and so on who had made the whole thing possible, we went off for something to eat at the Caçarola restaurant again. We had their truly excellent fish soup, followed by "robalinho", small sea bass. We probably should have had one of these between the two of us as there was just so much to eat. 

One of our party, a young man with no Portuguese whatsoever, apart from "olá", managed to order, or possible was persuaded to try, a local speciality dish, a kind of fish stew with lots of rice in it. Whether it was intended for him to share with companions we never found out but it came in a huge white ceramic dish, which one of our friends compared to a chamberpot. The young man spent a good deal of time selecting pieces of fish and occasional vegetables, all of which he ate with relish. After some time he declared that it was a shame he did not really like rice! When we left he was still gamely making his way through the dish. 

There are some things which you simply could not make up!

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Same old same old.

Walking along the road the other day, we spotted a chap leaning on the corner of a building. "Watch out!" said Phil, "That beggar is about to jump out at us." And, lo and behold, he did so, just like the jester in the closing credits fro Blackadder. The next moment he was there in front of us, hand outstretched and whiney voice going into an incomprehensible litany. At least he took no for an answer. There is another one who follows you down the street, continuing his whine. I saw him again his morning, bumming a cigarette of a man on the street. Having got his cigarette, he then asked if he didn't have a bit of spare change as well. And, of course, there are also the parking beggars, ushering drivers into parking spaces that they can access quite well on their own. As in Spain, then, so in Portugal. 

One difference I have noticed concerns talking about money. When something costs, for example, €2.50, they are quite likely to say "two and a half", "dois e meia", rather than "two euros fifty". 

Today is the last day of the chess tournament here. Today's round begins at 2.00pm instead of 7.00pm, presumably to allow time for prize giving? There was a suggestion earlier in the week that they might start this round at 10.00am. Apart from one chap who suggested 11.00am, nobody was brave enough to say that 10.00 was too early. Fortunately there was a young man who came in from somewhere outlying by public transport every day and he pointed out that he could simply not arrive in time. So back to 2.00pm they went. Phew! My chess player was relieved! 

There is some kind of event going on in our hotel today: lots of people in smart business clothes. There are no fancy frocks or hats or fascinators so I don't think it's a wedding. They were all gathered noisily at breakfast time this morning and as I came back from the station at around midday they seemed to be having drinks and snacks in the ground floor reception area. Still noisy! 

I went to the station to ask about trains to Oporto on Monday and came away armed with timetables for the slow train from here to Coimbra B and for the fast trains from Coimbra B to Oporto. The train station is in a state of chaos; major renovation work is going onto the old station building and all information giving and ticket sales are taking place in a kind of hut on the station forecourt. 

The bus station is just next to the train station. There an oldish, partially-sighted man was being helped to find a bench by a lady who had dumped her basket of shopping at the corner of the street. I swear the same man was being assisted in exactly the same way when last I went to the station for information. And that was a year ago. It was a curious mind of déjà vu! 

Perhaps he just finds a spot there to sit in the sunshine every day! And why not?

Friday, 27 November 2015

Getting away from it all.

Another excellent lunch has been consumed. We took a friend along to the Núcleo Sportinguista, hoping for a repeat of the grilled sea bass that we had the other day. Unfortunately they were all out of sea bass so we had to make do with a different grilled fish. Not quite so tasty as the sea bass but still very good. 

It makes up for the rather indifferent unidentified fish we ate yesterday at a different restaurant. That seriously needed a sauce of some kind to liven it up. But really we cannot complain about the eating here. It has been very good on the whole. Quite how it would have been if we did not like fish so much is a different matter. 

Nor can we complain about the weather. Today has been t-shirt weather. I even saw some people in shorts but I did feel that they were exaggerating a little. And it does get just a little chilly in the evening, especially when the smokers leave the door to the terrace open while I wait for the chess player to finish his game. 

This morning I walked along the shoreline. Anglers were out. I often wonder what they do while they wait for a fish to bite. Maybe it's a Zen thing and they all get into a little meditation. Who knows? Anyway, I walked along the shoreline and saw some people walking barefoot in the sand. Perhaps that would have been a better option than having to empty sand out of my boots when I got back up to the promenade. 

As I left the beach, I came across this rather fine example of graffiti. This definitely beats the usual tagging that you see in most places. 

Today is Black Friday, which I have commented on before: another American tradition brought across the Atlantic. Even here in little Figueira da Foz there are shops telling us that it is Black Friday! Why do shops need a further excuse to have an instant sale? Can they not do so without having to put a silly label on it? All so that we will go out and spend, spend, spend! 

I was reading something by a journalist who has decided to have her own protest against Black Friday by vowing not buy anything but essentials for the next year: no new clothes, no cinema tickets, no concert tickets, no holiday bookings. She even plans to cycle to work so that she will not have to buy bus/train/tube tickets! And she has given up buying take-out coffee for the duration. Some aspects of this I can go along with and no doubt she will save money but it does seem a bit extreme. 

I think we'll just carry on booking flights to places where we can eat nice food and escape from the nastier realities of life!

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Nativity stories and other stuff.

Amongst all the other things that are going on in the world, here's a "heart-warming story". It's getting close to Christmas, a time when everyone does their best to forget it's all about the story of a baby being born in unusual circumstances. So here's another baby story. In New York a women abandoned her newborn baby son in the manger of the nativity scene in a church in the city. He was brand new, umbilical cord still attached. His mother wrapped him in a towel and left him in what she considered to be a warm, safe place. After all the church is supposed to be a haven. 

What struck me though is that, having identified the mother of the child, the authorities in their wisdom have decided not to prosecute her. Surely a women desperate enough to leave her baby in a church for someone to find needs help not prosecution! Of course, that's probably just me being a bit idealistic and liberal in my thinking. 

Meanwhile some are waxing sentimental about it. One of the priests at the church said, "The beautiful thing is that this woman found in this church – which is supposed to be a home for those in need – this home for her child. A young couple in our parish would love to adopt this child and keep this gift in our community. It would make a great Christmas miracle.” Well, yes, very nice and all that but really a miracle?? It's a good job they found the mother though. That little boy might want to find her again some time in the future. 

Somewhere in my wanderings through online newspapers I discovered that we have missed International Men's Day. This was November 19th and it has been around since 1992. Who knew? I certainly didn't. Apparently the intention was to highlight men's health problems and matters such as discrimination against men. Does that exist outside of certain women's organisations? Or was it discrimination that there is was a Women's Day first. Anyway, I'm just surprised that the card manufacturers have not latched onto it. Think of the income generation from all the cards they could produce! 

Here in Figueira da Foz, the sun continues to shine. My chess player took a day off yesterday to try to shake off a dose of man-flu. Today, however, is another day. Another game to play. Another player with an impossibly long name to investigate, if the hotel's internet will allow that to happen. 

Most hotels we have stayed at recently have simply given us a password and we have then connected automatically, as we do with the numerous wifi cafe we frequent. This one asked us how many "devices" we had and gave us three separate slips of paper with three different user names and passwords. In theory this gave us one week's internet access. So we expected it to run out on Friday some time. But no, since yesterday we have had to log in afresh almost every time we use one of our "devices". 

Extremely annoying!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Corrections, information and the price of fish soup!

Yesterday I wrote about the Castello Engenheiro Souza. That should have been Engenheiro Silva. That's who I googled. My fingers just typed Souza, a common name, instead of Silva, another common name. What can you do when your fingers have a mind of their own? 

Francisco Maria Pereira da Silva, to give him his full name, had the place built for his own residence. It was one of the first buildings in that section of the Barrio Novo, which Francisco Maria Pereira da Silva (1814 - 1891) was responsible for constructing. Originally it had only one floor and a few turrets but when he added further floors it was given the name of Castello. Amazing what you can find out from plaques on the wall! 

(This business of names is interesting. Phil was looking up one of his chess opponents in a database. Most chess players have some, if not most, of the games they have played in tournaments stored in a database somewhere. In this case he could not find a single one. Odd! When they came to play, his opponent put a slightly different name on the score sheet: same surname but a different first name. Another chess playing friend commented that the problem is that the Portuguese, like the Spanish, tend to have a lot of names. It may not have been conscious trickery at all. More likely it was a mistake on the part of the database organiser!) 

Here are a couple of examples of the fancy tilework on the building next door to Francisco Maria Pereira da Silva's castle. 

 Lovely stuff. 

Anyway, Engenheiro Silva seems to have been a big wheel around here back in the 19th century. Streets are named after him. Even the market hall is named after him, and that place gets reviews on Trip Advisor! 

I called in at the pottery shop there this morning. It's full of that brightly coloured earthenware pottery that they do around here. 

And, this being Portugal, there are lots of cockerels. 

Best of all, today anyway, was this pottery  basket of Baby Jesuses! (Is that the correct plural for Jesus?) 

The games in the chess tournament here begin at seven in the evening. This is great as it gives you plenty of time to have lunch and digest it or sleep it off or whatever. However, it is not good when games go on and on. Phil's game last night did not finish until 10.30 or just a little later. We then waited around for a couple of friends to finish so that we could go and have a beer together. When we finally left the playing venue at almost 11.30 one of our friends was STILL finishing off a game. 

 We left him to it and went off to the Caçarola restaurant. Our Canadian friend had not eaten since a late breakfast and needed to have some food. We planned on having only a beer but the fish soup he was served looked so good that we decided to have some as well. 

Two bowls of very good fish soup, a bit of bread and two beers for €8.45!! You would be lucky to get a pint for that price in the UK!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Seen in Figueira

Out and about this morning early - well, quite early - I came across some old fortifications. The rusty information notice said it was a small fortress erected by King Miguel to protect the town. Now it is seriously overshadowed by taller blocks of flats. Clearly the fortress could not protect against an invasion of tall buildings in the 20th and 21st century. 

Later I looked up King Miguel. King of Portugal from 1838 to 1834, he was eventually forced of the throne and out of the country, spending the last 32 years of his life in exile. Turbulent times! (Note to self: refresh knowledge of Portuguese history.) He is described as being the favourite child of his mother, Queen Carlota, and was consequently rather spoiled. As a child he liked to dress up in military uniform and as young man of 16 was noted for riding through town knocking people's hats off. Would he get away with such behaviour now?! 

I had set off for my morning walk on the lookout for a chemist to see if I could buy something like Lemsip. Phil's chess tournament progress is being hampered by a stinking cold and the Lemsip has run out. In Spain in the past I have managed to buy something similar. So far here I have only succeeded in buying tablets, to be taken three times a day. I did manage to explain what I wanted in my halting Portuguese but perhaps I would have been more successful if my knowledge of the language had been more extensive. I was going to have another go in a different chemist's but did not come across one. As a rule there seems to be a chemist's shop on every corner. Once you start to look for one, they all disappear. 

Keeping up its nautical appearance, as well as our boat-shaped hotel, Figueira has anchors on roundabouts and seaside-related stuff inlaid in the pavements. All the pavements here seem to be made of white cobble stones. 

Last year we saw some stretches of pavement being repaired. The individual cobble stones, with a top surface of around four square inches, are embedded about eight inches deep. Very labour intensive to install, I would imagine, but once laid the surface must last pretty well forever. At various points the pavements are decorated with kind of mosaic patterns, including fish, shells and crabs. Very nice! 

I also admired some of the fanciful buildings, with turrets and would be fortifications that clearly serve no more purpose than mere decoration. Here is a rather fairytale-looking example. Strangely odd alongside more mundane styles of architecture! 

And here is the Castello Engenheiro Souza. When we first came to Figueira, possibly five years ago, the tower at the top of this building was collapsing and there was scaffolding around it. It even looked as though the whole building was in a serious state of disrepair. However, they did not knock the while thing down, the building was given a facelift and the tower was restored ... in a way. To me it looks a little out of place but it's not my responsibility. 

Now it looks as though it could do with a new coat of paint but I still like the look of the place. I wonder as well about possible Moorish influence on some of those windows. When the Moors invaded The Iberian Peninsula, did they include Portugal in their conquest? Did they get this far? I know that further north the Galician claim that the Moors did not reach them, even though I see occasional Moorish elements in some of the buildings there. (another bit of research called for!) 

All this before ten o' clock in the morning. Quite an interesting start to the day!

Monday, 23 November 2015

Another day in Figueira.

After yesterday's rain, obviously sent to freshen the place up, we woke to brilliant sunshine this morning. It was a little chilly to start with when I strolled round to the market to buy fruit but on the whole a good start to the day. 

Yesterday I put a picture of the outside of our boat-shaped hotel. Here is a picture of the dining room. No need to go on a cruise now.

Some time after breakfast we went for a stroll in the sunshine, up the coast to Buarcos, not really another town, more an extension of Figueira. It must at some time have been a separate place but now, as with so many places, it has all merged into one. 

Judging by the fortifications that remain, the people of Buarcos must at one time have wanted to keep themselves to themselves. Unless, of course, they just wanted to keep the sea out. Now it's a hotchpotch of the old and the new. 

There are buildings that date from the 19th century at least. Indeed, the cemetery was established there, on the edge of town, in 1715. Now it too has been absorbed into the greater conglomeration and finds itself almost as adjunct to the Lidl supermarket carpark. Everything changes. 

At lunchtime we met a Canadian friend, another chess player who we got to know during the summer in Sanxenxo. He had been playing chess in Mallorca and had just flown to Portugal this morning, having taken three byes in the chess tournament here. So we showed him a good place to eat. More soup and fish for around €10 apiece. Not a bad life. 

Reading the papers online I came across a report of an interview with Diana Athill, literary editor and writer. At 98 she seems to be sharp as a button still and has just published her latest memoir. I always thought her name was pronounce At - (h)ill but according to the journalist, the lady herself pronounces it Ath - ill. There you go. Always a little something to learn! 

The article tells how "For the best part of 40 years, while she lived more or less happily with the playwright Barry Reckord, Athill wrote little – “because I didn’t have any awfulness to get rid of”. It was only when she retired that she bowed to pressure from friends to write about her lifetime in publishing". It's an interesting idea that, in order to be creative, a writer needs some "awfulness" to get rid of. 

I have come across this idea before. There is a theory that if some of the great poets had been prescribed anti-depressants they might never have produced the works they published. I wonder! Most certainly, a writer must have a compelling need to write. In Carlos Ruiz Zafon's novel "La Sombra del Viento", the protagonist as a young man wants to write novels and is convinced that owning a particular fountain pen, allegedly once owned and used by Victor Hugo, will enable him to produce great work. Understandably, he is disabused and disappointed! 

The headline of the Diana Athill article struck me. Of all the things she did in her life and said and wrote about her life, the one fact they chose to headline was her revelation that she had expected to be devastated when she had a miscarriage but had been surprised to find that she took it in her stride and just got on with her life. Why did they select that fact rather than any other? Why choose that particular stick to beat women with. 

On a similar sort of topic, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg states that is planning to take two months of paternity leave when his daughter is born. He said in an online post “outcomes are better for children and families” when working parents take time off to be with their newborns. He called the decision “very personal”. I must say he is very lucky to be able to take that very personal decision. 

Here are a few facts about parental leave:- Facebook offers its US employees up to four months of paid parental leave. Announcements by tech companies on parental leave have prompted a debate about the schemes’ value and which employees are eligible for the benefit. Netflix said in August it was giving some of its US workers up to a year of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child, though a row broke out over which employees would receive it. Adobe and Microsoft also bolstered their parental benefits. If only all employers offered good terms to their people. 

At the other end of the scale the Yahoo boss, Marissa Myer, prompted dismay over what expectations should be placed on new parents when she said she would be “working throughout” while taking two weeks’ maternity leave to give birth to twins. Of course, she might change her mind when the twins are born. And presumably she earns enough to pay someone to look after her bundle of double trouble. Another very fortunate person! 

It is, of course, entirely her decision, but there's a part of me that wonders why she is bothering to have the twins at all since she clearly does not plan on staying at home with them. Maybe they are a fashion accessory!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Figueira in the rain.

Today we have rain. No doubt the sunny days could not be expected to last at this time of year. Nonetheless, I strolled out this morning early. This was how I discovered the rain. It was not obvious until I was out of the hotel door. At which point I had to go back in for my raincoat. 65 stairs! I could, of course, have taken the lift but exercise is partly the purpose of the morning stroll. 

Towns like Figueira are strangely quiet on Sunday mornings in the rain. In the UK, with Sunday trading, we notice very little difference between Sunday and the other days of the week nowadays. Actually, that is not strictly true. Sunday shopping is more of a leisure activity, a family pursuit. Shopping during the rest of the week is more mundane and less sociable. But it is rare to find the kind of quiet that you encounter in small towns in mainland Europe. Especially seaside resorts out of season. 

I strolled around in the intermittent drizzle. In between times the clouds tried to clear and the sun tried to emerge. With very little success. But at least the rain is warmer here than in the north west of England. As I wandered I admired the sometimes odd buildings. This green one has a curiously flowery top, to what purpose I have no idea. Purely decorative? I can see no obvious practical use. 

Eventually my wanderings brought me back to the sea front. Quite probably all roads here lead to the seafront in the end. Looking at it from the other side of the road, I could see that our hotel is the one I have commented on in previous years, the one shaped like a cruise ship. I suppose such a design is appropriate for a sea front hotel. Where else could you build one without it looking marooned and out of place? 

Inside it is also decorated with models of different kinds of boats. A nautical place, obviously. 

At lunchtime we explored a new place - new to us at any rate. Volta e Meia it calls itself. Tuesday to Friday it offers a menu do dia: soup, main course, drink and coffee for €7.00. Today being Sunday that was not possible. Still, for just under €10 each we had onion soup - a blended soup not French style onion soup - and "ovos rotos", which like our friend Colin they could not translate adequately into English but put in Spanish in the English menu as "huevos rotos". This turned out to be egg (fried and definitely not broken, unless you count breaking the shell) and chips with some prawns thrown in. Not a very fancy Sunday lunch but good enough, with a glass of wine and a coffee thrown in. 

The place was decorated with those posable artists drawing model figures pinned to the wall, strange spidery lamps and some interesting chalk drawings on the wall. 

Possibly worth another visit to see if they can do something more complicated than egg and chips.. 

The weather forecast is rather better for tomorrow.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

In Figueira.

Day one in Figueira da Foz. Technically, I suppose, it should be day two but since a good part of yesterday was spent travelling this is the first whole day here. So, day one it is. Not having running gear with me (travelling hand luggage only restricts what you can carry), instead I got up and went for a walk along the sea front and back along the boardwalks on the immense beach, taking pictures of palms being blown around by the fierce wind. Windy it might be but cold it is not. 

The beautiful stripy beach huts are all closed up for the winter season. One has a notice on the door declaring it to be the "biblioteca da praia", the beach library! What a splendid idea!   

At home they have snow. People have been posting photos on Facebook. We got away just in time, it seems. That white stuff is very pretty to look at but extremely impractical. 

Sometime after midday we walked out and examined the market hall with its huge variety of fruit and fish for sale. The upper floor still seems to need some developing but the ground floor appears to be thriving. We bought Portugal mugs for our cups of tea. Our hotel room is equipped with a kettle but the only cups provided are nasty expanded polystyrene things. So now we have more picturesque things to drink from. 

Our wanderings took us to the Núcleo Sporting where, even though we are not members, we got the members' discount menu do dia: soup and "mista de peixe", a plate of various fried fish with baked potatoes and salad. With wine, water and coffee, it all came to €22.40. Another bargain lunch! 

Later in the day I walked out to the light house, going past the notice at the start of the causeway, warning me about the danger of "overtopping" in the dangerous "sweel". I presume this meant that waves might come over the top if their was a big swell! Good grief! This Portugal where they pride themselves in being good at English. We expect better! 

On my way back to the hotel I found what might be the eponymous fig tree. Figueira da Foz means the fig tree at the mouth of the river. And there it was, just near the old fortifications and what I assume was the original lighthouse (the one I walked to is at the end of an artificial sea wall enclosing and extending the harbour): a fig tree, rather devoid of leaves and a bit straggly but still recognisably a fig tree. There you go!

Friday, 20 November 2015

Off to Portugal.

Having got up at the crack of dawn - well, 6:00am, which is the crack of dawn for us - we were on the road this morning by 6:30, en route for Stansted. Our son had offered to drive us there to catch our plane to Portugal. What a very kind person he is. We were very glad we were not travelling in the other direction along the motorway as the traffic was already beginning to get congested, even at that early hour. No doubt he had a slower drive back after dropping us off. 

And so we sat around for a while at the airport until the time came to board the plane, a rather hot and stuffy plane. We dozed for most of the journey to Oporto. There we were met by another kind person, someone whose name I should have remembered from last year when he also picked up and drove us to Figueira da Foz. 

For the duration of the car journey I proved to myself that my Portuguese is atrocious. I can read it well enough but understanding spoken Portuguese, especially at normal speaking speed, is clearly something I need to work at. And as for speaking it!!! Well, it tends to come out with all the little words, the prepositions and conjunctions, in Italian. French and Spanish do not interfere. I have obviously been speaking those two languages for long enough for the sections of the brain where they reside to be sufficiently well insulated for them not to mess with the Portuguese. But Italian is a more recent acquisition and pops up when I need a word in Portuguese. 

Someone should do a study on this aspect of foreign language learning. When I used to teach adults Spanish in evening classes, far too many years ago now, people who swore they had never been any good at French at school found their French vocabulary banks reactivated by trying to learn Spanish. Curious! 

Anyway, I somehow managed to talk about the weather (the easy bit), local versus central government, the advisability or otherwise of Scotland going independent and regional attitudes in general, as well as explaining that Ireland proper is not part of the UK although Northern Ireland is. Quite exhausting! 

And now here we are in Figueira da Foz, with a room overlooking the amazing beach. In the wardrobe we found several items of clothing and a fancy box of Portuguese sweets left behind by the precious occupant. Someone had not checked the drawers carefully enough before departing. I wonder if they realised where they had left the present intended for someone or other. 

We took ourselves out for a late lunch at a place we know called La Caçarola. The first time we went there I was convinced it was called La Caracola, which I assumed meant some mind of shell. In fact it is called The Saucepan, a much more appropriate name for an eating establishment. We sensibly ignored the platter of stuff that was put on our table while we perused the menu: humous, cream cheeses, croquettes - all stuff you find added to your bill at the end of the meal if you are unwise enough to think it is a freebie. For the grand total of €23:30 (about £17) - that's altogether, not each - we had a bowl of soup and a plate of small fried sole with Russian salad, washed down with half a bottle of white wine. Not bad for a first day. 

And the sun has been shining nicely. Fingers crossed that this continues all week!

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Travel adventures.

We set off on our travels today. Bus to Oldham, tram to Manchester Piccadilly, train to London Euston and eventually tube to our son's house. Tomorrow we get up and the crack of dawn and catch a plane to Portugal, hoping that the security measures are not too onerous, bearing in mind everyone's state of mega-alert at the moment. 

 Our train had barely left Manchester when a young man came along to the train manager's booth, situated just opposite our seats, which is how I came to eavesdrop on the conversation. The young man, who looked little more than 17 or 18, told the train manager that he had just realised that he had left his backpack on a seat on the station forecourt, just outside the entrance to our platform. Her reaction was priceless: she looked at him and calmly asked if he watched the news. No, he replied, sounding rather puzzled. 

She did not say that his bag might have been taken away and destroyed, which might very well have happened. Instead she phoned someone at Manchester Piccadilly and explained the situation. The young man described the rucksack, its contents, even the green can of pop in there with his laptop! Wonder of wonders, they found his bag, right where he said he had left it. It's a good job the station was relatively quiet this morning. 

The train manager talked options with him: he could collect the bag from Manchester on his return or, if his ticket was flexible enough, she could arrange for it to be put in the next train. His ticket was OK and so she fixed it so that he could get off this train at Stockport, wait for twenty minutes and then hop onto the next train to Euston where his backpack would be waiting for him in the train "shop". 

What a very lucky, and rather foolish, young man. How do you manage to leave a backpack with a laptop inside it on a seat on a station forecourt? Having said that, I did once leave a handbag at the bottom of an escalator on the Paris underground. I was not much older than the young man today. And I was as lucky as he was. When I went back down the escalator my bag was sitting there waiting for me! Sometimes things work out right! 

These are the experiences that make us learn not to be quite so carefree. 

By the way, when did buffet cars become shops? The "shop" was also close to our seats. Looking at it, I noticed that it sold newspapers and magazines as well as sweets and drinks. So perhaps it is more of a shop, after all. Next thing you know, it will be possible to buy the ingredients you need for your evening meal on the train home at the end of a busy day. Forget about working on the commuter train, do the weekly shop on the train as well!

Monday, 16 November 2015

Everything is relative!

On Friday, feeling virtuous, I went and did some major cleaning at my daughter's house. These are the kind of things retired mother's do when their daughters are in their first term as newly qualified primary teachers and seem to be working their socks off every hour in the day. 

Some hours later I stood at a bus stop. She was still finishing off at school so there was no chance of a lift. According to the timetable there was a suitable bus at 24 minutes past the hour. At around 10 minutes past the hour a bus arrived. This was the one that should have been at 4 minutes past. It only went as far as the estate just up the road. No good to me. At around 20 minutes past the hour, another one showed up. Also going to the estate up the road. It should have arrived at 14 minutes past. Also no good to me. An unkind thought struck me: why is that estate so well provided for? 

Eventually, at almost 30 minutes past the hour yet another bus hove into view. This was going beyond the estate up the road. According to the timetable, assuming that it was in fact the 24 minutes pas bus, it should have gone all the way to Oldham, passing through Delph village. Just what I needed. However, it was only going as far as Uppermill, a place I could walk from, although I was not inclined to do so as it was going dark and cold. 

Mumbling and muttering and grumbling about unannounced changes to the bus service, I got on anyway. The change of timetable led me to a change of plan: a stop off at the local Tesco store to run round and pick up this and that in time to catch the next bus. My bus after the supermarket, you will be relieved to hear, arrived on time and was going where I expected it to go! 

Later in the evening, I saw the news about all that was going on in Paris and realised that my moans and complaints were extremely minor. How does a bit of a transport problem compare with those events? 

Since then, I have watched the news coverage and read the comments on social media. The usual suspects have told us that this is what Islam is all about and that we should stop all the migrants coming into Europe. What kind of world do these tweeters and twitterers live in? The arguments about bombing or not bombing rage on and on. What kind of world do the pro-major-retaliation politicians want us to live in? And poor old Jeremy Corbyn, having been criticised already for not bowing deeply enough on Remembrance Sunday, has now been accused of not having sad enough eyes when talking about the Paris atrocities. The world is mad! 

So, finally, here is a link to a short article about a leaflet being put out to small French children to help them understand what went on last Friday!

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Sights of Manchester and Saddleworth.

On Tuesdays I catch a bus to the tram stop and then a tram to Manchester. Because of the masses of roadworks going on in Manchester (have I mentioned already that central Manchester is one big building site?) my tram no longer goes to Saint Peter's Square but turns off towards Piccadilly and then goes to Ashton. In fact, although some trams now go through the Saint Peter's Square stop, nothing stops there. Consequently, to get to my Italian class, which is held in the Manchester Deaf Institute, down by the universities, I have to walk for about twenty minutes across the city centre, zigzagging through the works where they are busy improving our tram service(!) and then a fair distance down Oxford Road. 

On the way, as well as road works, tram improvement works and smartly dressed Jehovah's Witnesses, who stand stock still and hold out copies of The Watchtower, I see numerous homeless people. Most of them simply sit and look dejected. Some call out to you, asking if you can spare some change. A few sit in groups and talk earnestly. Down Oxford Road there was until recently a colony of homeless who had set up tents under one of the bridges. They sat around braziers and cooked food. Passers-by gave them food as well as money. The large colony has been dismantled and moved on more than once but it keeps coming back and yesterday there were a couple of tents once more. 

The homeless man who impressed me yesterday was the youngish man who simply sat on the pavement, leaning on the wall of the building behind him, his belongings in a bag next to him, reading a book. He was minding his own business, just getting on with his reading. In front of him was a cap with a few coins in, presumably to remind folk that he would like a donation if you happened to notice him. As I was in no hurry and had plenty of time to reach my destination, I stopped and asked what he was reading: Harper Lee's "Go Set a Watchman". He told me what he thought of it. I told him what I had heard and read in the way of reviews and commented that I maybe should get myself a copy. Whereupon he told me that If I were to walk that way on the following day he would let me have his copy as he would undoubtedly have finished it. He offered me "Girl on a Train", which he had finished the day before. I declined that offer. What I have read about "Girl on a Train" does not encourage me to read it. 

But it seems that there is a kind of network for passing books on. What a good idea. Maybe I should remember to carry with me a book or two that I have read and don't intend to read again; I could pass them on. As for the homeless man, even if reading is an attention-seeking gimmick, like having a dog that people stop and pet with the advantage that you don't have to feed a book, I still say good for him! Much better than just sitting staring into space and holding out your hand. 

Locally we do not see homeless people. There is a woman, possibly Rumanian, who sells the Big Issue in Uppermill, but I am not sure she is actually homeless as I have seen her coming out of a house in Lees and catching the bus to Uppermill. Workless but not homeless then. 

We do, however, have our share of roadworks. Some might say more than our share. Even on the canal, there are roadworks. OK, canal works. This morning I saw workmen who looked as though they were doing maintenance work or repair work on one of the lock gates. The water had been kept out of the lock for long enough for the stretch of canal between there and the next lock along to be seriously depleted. 

And further along, although there was still a fair amount of water, the level was clearly down. The Ashley Rose, moored near the Uppermill park, a boat that sometimes sells flowers and potting plants and advertises gardening services, was listing badly. Poor thing? 

Not even the torrential rain of Monday had refilled the canal. The river was a different matter. The stepping stones were almost all under the water and I had to go the long way round from the towpath to get into the village centre and go to the market. 

Such is life!

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Bits of nonsense everywhere!

The other day I heard a reporter talking about Black Friday. This turns out to be the Friday following Thanksgiving, "regarded as the beginning of the Christmas shopping season the USA". I find the terminology interesting. Denoting something "black" usually implies something bad. Do the shops regard it as a bad thing that Christmas shopping has begun? Do shoppers regard it as a bad thing that have to (yes, they absolutely have to) go out and spend money? 

But the term Black Friday seems to be making its way into UK terminology as well. Odd! We don't do Thanksgiving! We just stop putting spooky stuff in the shops once Hallowe'en is out of the way and concentrate on selling mince pies and sparkly stuff instead. 

Thanksgiving this year is on Thursday, the 26th of November. Apparently it's always the fourth Thursday in November. Who knew? Not me, anyway. But that still gives the Americans a couple of weeks before they have to start Christmas shopping. 

Not so here in the UK. (How do we calculate when Black Friday arrives anyway?) On the bus this morning I overheard a lady telling her friend that she had already completed all hers. The parcels were wrapped and labelled. All she needed to do now was write her Christmas cards. She was planning to do that tomorrow evening! Good grief! They haven't even got the Christmas markets organised properly in Manchester! Whatever is she going to do between now and Christmas? 

 Meanwhile Starbucks is in seasonal trouble. Some people are threatening to boycott them. Not because of tax avoidance. Not because their cups of coffee are too big. Not because the people concerned think Starbucks coffee is rubbish. Three reasons that work for me. No, the reason is quite different. Because Christmas is coming up Starbucks have produced a new style seasonal coffee cup. If, that is, you can really call a medium sized paper bucket a cup! Anyway, they are serving what they call coffee in cardboard cups in shades of red: bright red at the top, working down to a sort of cranberry lower down. The problem is that there are no snowflakes. NO, NO SNOWFLAKES! This is what you need to show that your red mug is a Christmas mug! So they are accused of turning their back on Christianity, being un-Christian or even anti-Christian, refusing to celebrate Christmas, being politically over-correct and generally spoiling some people's enjoyment of the festive season. Which, I reiterate, has not really begun yet. I wonder at the workings of some people's minds! Truly, I do! 

On BBC Radio 4 this week they have been putting on some short plays about children as part of the drive to raise money for the charity "Children in Need". I turned off tonight's offering. A child who was supposedly in foster care was describing her bedroom. She sounded like a fairly ordinary sort of north of England child from the way she spoke. Then she mentioned being able to see "the guitar wot I play". It was too much for me. It is possible to make a child sound authentic (they were doing it quite well) without having the child speak in a completely ungrammatical manner, in the style of Morecambe and Wise with "The play what I wrote", consciously ungrammatical I hasten to remind you. 

The irony is that our daughter in primary teaching role has to make sure children speak grammatically. She has to devise ways of ensuring that they use, for example, was and were appropriately. Now, if that is part of the National Curriculum, why don't the BBC make sure their writers follow suit. All they needed to do was miss out the "wot". 

That's enough of that. In the Italian class this afternoon, before we got down to serious discussions of the value or otherwise of dialects and regional languages, we somehow got onto the advantages of growing older. These include the bus pass, senior rail cards, reduced price tickets for certain speciality cinemas in the area, reduced price entry to museums and art galleries all over the place and, the one that started the discussion in the first place, double points on your Boots loyalty card! 

Well, since most of us are growing quite mature now, we had to find something to console ourselves! 

And finally, the huge dog who was occupying a seat on my bus last week has popped up again. 

Zelig-like, he was waiting for the train, my train, at Victoria station. 

 And then he came and waited at my bus stop!

 Of course, he might just live somewhere near our house.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Equal opportunities!

Apparently today is Equal Pay Day. Because of this the Guardian produced a sort of tongue in cheek guide to help women know how to get on professionally. The first piece of advice was to be a man. All well and good! It went on to advise not having children, indeed not even to show any interest in children whatsoever, even other people's. And then there's the weight question. Success, it seems, is in inverse proportion to what you weigh. Here's a link to the whole article.

What Equal Pay Day is really about is that today is the point at which women on average stop earning compared with their male counterparts. Campaigners claim that women working full time will effectively work for free for the rest of the year from today. But the good news is that this year that point has been reached five days later this year, indicating a narrowing of the divide. It would not seem to be much of a narrowing though. And last year was a bad year as the day came three days earlier than in 2013. 

The current hourly pay gap between men and women is 14.2%. it is estimated that at the current rate of change it will be another 50 years before equality finally takes place. And the higher up the pay scale you are, the worse it gets. The gap in pay between men and women in the top 5% of earners in 45.9%. And in the top 2% it is 54.9%. I doubt if that is much consolation for the women at the bottom of the pay scale. 

It all makes me feel glad to be out of the rat race and able to go off and have lunch with friends today in Manchester, instead of worrying about the pay gap. Mind you, I suspect that if I really investigated it, I would find similar statistics about pensions. This does not alter the fact that my friends and I were able to rub our hands with glee and to make jokes about having to get up early to watch people go to work. 

We met in Waterstones cafe. How civilised it is to have coffee shops inside bookshops! The fact that they still serve coffee in small buckets if you are foolish enough to order a large one is neither here nor there. 

Because the weather was so foul we did not want to walk far for lunch and so we went to La Viña, just a short distance down the road on Deansgate. There they have a menú del día of three tapas for just under a tenner. We were a group of four. The list of tapas consisted of twelve items. So I persuaded the waiter, a charming young man from Elche, near Alicante, that we could have one of everything between the four of us. 

This meant that instead of each of us being served a plate with three tapas on, we had a small plate each and the full range of tapas crowding out the table between us. A much better way of sharing. Unfortunately I didn't take a picture. We just sat and ate and swapped tall stories and old memories. A splendid way to spend a wet Monday lunchtime! 

I did take pictures of Christmas decorations in Manchester. 

It may only be not quite mid-November but Christmas is clearly coming fast. Time to start spending that unequal pay.

Sunday, 8 November 2015


Yesterday they switched on the Christmas lights in Manchester. Huge celebrations and a big party took place around the town hall. How splendid! This was yesterday, NOVEMBER 7th!!!! I read somewhere that the huge Christmas tree had arrived in New York ready to be erected outside the Rockefeller centre but they don't light it up until December 2nd. Mind you, they have to get Thanksgiving out of the way first otherwise they too might have got started on Christmas already.  

The weekend papers are full of it as well: helpful suggestions for Christmas menus, gift ideas, hints in how to look sparkly for the parties you will inevitably be going to. Here's one idea: Rent, don't buy. For £130 a month you can hire a designer handbag, a Chanel or something similar! Personally, I am not impressed by designer handbags. It's just another form of showing off. And for £130 I would want something to keep, not something I would have to hand back. I'm sure Chanel make enough money without my giving them some more just to be allowed to advertise their name! 

While I'm on the subject of things I don't see the point of paying for, what about jeans and leggings with holes in? "Distressed", I believe they call this. Why pay for something that looks as though is ready for the ragbag? And I just saw a skirt on sale for £185. It is described as a "frayed skirt". In other words, the top of the waistband is not properly finished and is fraying. The same applies to the hem. And it has coloured patches stitched onto it. This is supposed to be "dressed-up denim". Really? I fear I am getting too old and sensible for such things. There's a bit of me that thinks about the washing. Surely such an unfinished garment would begin to unravel in the washing machine! 

Did you know that the writer Doris Lessing reportedly had a theory that spiders must once have been as big as dinosaurs. This is how she explained our fear of them. Maybe evolution is working towards returning them to their former hugeness. This would explain some of the giant specimens around at present. 

I read something this morning that said that the average woman uses 12 toiletries per morning. So I thought about it and did a little count and came up with close to half a dozen. Shower gel, body lotion, face creams and so on. If I wash my hair, that adds a couple more - shampoo and conditioner - and maybe some more on top of that if I use an anti-frizz serum before I dry my hair! And then there is perfume. Does that count? I thought the writer was exaggerating but no, probably not. There are women who use very little. I once had a student who never used shampoo or conditioner. She simply rinsed her hair in the shower and that was that. And her hair always looked beautiful! She was on a ecological mission to use as few beauty products as possible. Now, if there are women like her using next to nothing, then some women must really go over the top to reach an average of twelve. 

I never knew that walking round a city was a 'fitness trend' but apparently this is the case. It started in the USA and they call it urban hiking, based on the idea that it can be as exciting and as strenuous to walk around a city as to go for walk through hills and mountains. One hiker plotted a route around San Francisco, a seven-day, 110 mile route that connected all of the city's 600 outdoor stairways, 42 hills and 5,000+ feet of climbing. Phew! Someone else spent six days hiking 200 miles and 300 staircases around Los Angeles. Once again, phew! And now there are companies marketing organised hikes around cities in the UK. 

Now, for years Phil and I have explored on foot cities that we have visited throughout Europe. We refer to it as "walking the walk" and have long maintained that the only way to get to know and appreciate a city is to walk it thoroughly. 

 All unwittingly we were trend setters!

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Sentimentality and the modern world.

The actress Joanna Lumley had an idea: a green space spanning the River Thames in the heart of London. And thus the Garden Bridge project came into being. They hope to start work on it in the new year. It is going to cost £175 million! Most of that comes from private sources but £30 million is from the Treasury and £10 million from Transport for London. Because it will be a garden bridge there will be thousands of plants and, amazingly, 270 trees. What I want to know is where the roots of those 270 trees will go! 

There are going be all sorts of rules for people who use the bridge. No exercise other than jogging. Now, I would have thought that such a place, intended surely to be a peaceful area, would be ideal for a bit of Tai Chi. No speechmaking, no kite flying and no playing of musical instruments. If you do either of the last two activities, your kite or musical instrument will be confiscated and disposed of! Can they really take your stuff away and destroy it? Musical instruments are not cheap after all! And you can't throw your loved ones' ashes into the river from that bridge. Mind you, it may be a while before it has the kind of sentimental attachment for people that makes them want to have their ashes thrown off it! 

More sentimental stuff! The big stores are all putting out their Christmas adverts. John Lewis has one out about a little girl seeing an old man on the moon through her telescope. It must be a pretty big and powerful telescope! and what a clever litle girl! She arranges for him to be sent a telescope, equally powerful although only quite small, so that he can look at her on Christmas Day. Apparently lots of people have been moved to tears by the advert. Thousands of people have tweeted about how they have been sobbing at the advert. All I can say is that they cry easily. It's ONLY an advert! I have seen it and it didn't bother me. Mind you, I didn't cry when I watched ET either. But these easy weepers, how do they get through the news broadcasts without feeling the urge to weep and then to tweet about how much they have wept? 

The V&A may have rejected Mrs Thatcher's old clothes but they like the Clangers. Next spring the V&A Museum of Childhood will have an exhibition of puppets and scripts from such things as Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine and Bagpuss, among others. A big nostalgia feast! And lots of parents will take their children. Some of them, some of the parents anyway, may get a little weepy! 

Recently, in the early evening news they were talking about problems with energy supplies and the possible risk of energy blackouts. The National Grid needed to make sure there was a plentiful supply the report said. This struck me as rather premature. It doesn't usually feature in the news until the weather starts to grow very cold and at the moment, even though we are extremely damp, the weather is surprisingly mild. Yesterday's news bulletins explained that this announcement was really something called a “notification of inadequate system margin” (NISM). You see, it even has an acronym. What's more, It’s simply part of what they call the "standard toolkit" for balancing supply and demand. There's often a crisis point in demand, they told us, beginning at this time of year because of the clocks having gone back and night starting at about 5.30, when offices and work places are still operating and demanding power but families are starting to demand power in the home as children return from school and fire up their electrical devices and parents start cooking tea and turning the heating on. 

There you go, not really a problem at all. There is, as is often the case with crises that are explained away, a grain of truth in it, however. Many of our old power stations are getting old and decrepit. We haven't got enough of an infrastructure in place to provide wind and solar panel in sufficient amounts. And besides, where do you get wind and solar energy on dark, windless nights? Not enough has been invested in alternative supplies and if the government goes ahead with their nuclear energy plans, prices will go up and up. Is this going to be another thing that only the rich can afford? Will the rest of us have to go back to candles or going to bed when the sun goes down? 

Meanwhile, protests have been taking place in Spain as the government proposes introducing bullfighting into its vocational training programme, "Formación Professional". I have mentioned this idea before. One theory is that the right wing government is pro-bullfighting. Here is a link to an article about it. 

Imagine the consternation of some parents whose offspring has opted out of the academic route and into vocational training when they discover that young Juan or Pedro or, presumably in this age of equality, young María or Julia has chosen the bullfighting course. Work experience becomes a dangerous thing! 

And even if the animal husbandry side of it might just possibly have some transferable skills, how much of the work with the cape and looking after the "traje de luces", the torero's outfit, can you apply to other professions? 

There you go.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Winning. Hobbies. And animals on the bus!

A few weeks ago I decided to do some knitting and sought out a wool shop. This is no easy thing to do these days. Haberdashers, wool shops, fabric shops and the like are a dying breed. This includes ironmongers, aka hardware shops. With the latter, however, it is still possible to purchase the stuff you want for your DIY projects although you now have to go to a huge emporium to do so. As a rule you then have to buy in bulk. It has become increasingly difficult to find the old-fashioned kind of shop where you could go in with a nail or nut or bolt in hand and ask if they could sell you one or two of whatever it was you needed. Now you have to buy a packet of fifty, twenty-five a good day, and you can guarantee that the next time you need one of those items you will have completely forgotten where you put them! (My siblings and I would just go and ask our dad as he had a very well-organised shed with tins of all sorts of odds and ends: rubber bands, nuts and bolts, nails and pieces of string too short to be of any real use!) 

Anyway, I knew of a haberdashery/ wool shop in Stalybridge and so one day, on my way to collect our grandson from school, I called in and purchased the yarn that I needed. Because I spent more than ten pounds I was given a free raffle ticket for a knitted teddy bear, a Pudsey Bear, in other words one with a bandage over one eye. It was only later that I put two and two together and realised that the raffle itself was intended to raise money for Children in Need but by then I had left the shop with my free raffle ticket. 

I don't win stuff, so you can imagine my surprise when I received a phone call on Monday from the shop. Sandra was clearly delighted to tell me I had won the bear! But, she went on, would I mind awfully waiting until Friday (today) to collect it as they were moving to bigger and better premises down the road and it would be more convenient for them if I waited until they were properly installed. This morning I received another call from a very apologetic Sandra. Time had run away with her and the bear was not ready. She had not finished making it. I hadn't realised she was knitting it herself. Perhaps she is one of the women who meet and knit and chat and have a drink together in the Stalybridge Station Buffet Bar on a Tuesday evening! She had been very busy and had got her days all confused. She had been convinced yesterday that it was Wednesday and, lo and behold, it had turned out to be Thursday. The upshot was that the bear was still not ready. 

They had, however, managed to move to the new premises and had decided to rename themselves "Sewendipity". What a good name! So now I am waiting for another call to tell me when I can collect my bear and have my picture taken with said soft toy. They will then see if the local paper will give them a little publicity. 

Sandra and I belong to a dwindling group of people who know how to knit (and sew, for that matter). There has been a bit of an upsurge in popularity lately but it's mostly people who have just discovered that they can actually manage to knit a scarf. Everyone tells them how clever they are. The likes of Sandra and myself remain unimpressed. We were knitting dolls outfits when we were small girls and progressed to proper knitting, sweaters and such, by the time we hit our teens! It's a useful hobby to have. 

Everyone should have a hobby! According to something I read this morning, Noel Gallagher said giving his interviews was his hobby. This was in an interview during which he badmouthed almost every pop singer going. He said, "I could do this all day long … I get to be a gobshite, and I get to do that thing: to be the last of a dying breed.” Which suggests, commented the writer of the article, there is some truth to the joke: Did you see that Noel Gallagher’s releasing an album to promote his latest round of interviews. How odd!

Enough of that! On my bus today I saw this. 

He was very well behaved but I could not help feeling that he should not have been sitting on a seat. Would you want to sit down in your clean clothes on a seat where a dog's rear end has been? I say this as someone who politely reminds young people not to put their feet on the seats. 

And this huge creature, who is larger that two children put together, travels for 50 pence per journey. It costs considerably more to take children on the bus! 

Whatever next? This dog was as big as a young horse. Will we see people bringing their llamas and elephants into public transport?