Sunday 30 December 2012

Dreaming of a warm Christmas

So we stayed in La Fresneda, our village in Spain, for Christmas – and what happened? Not a lot.

The long term weather forecast predicted cold but sunny for us all over the Christmas period. It was wrong. I was working happily in my Tshirt on the Sunday before Christmas and on  Christmas Eve (my woman’s birthday) we sat drinking coffee on the terrace of a lovely hotel located in the depths of the countryside near here drenched in sun and in temperatures approaching twenty degrees (that’s sixty-eight for Fahrenheit folk).

The hotel is called Torre del Visco and locally pronounced with awe. Our friend Jet, who now owns a camp site nearby, used to be the receptionist at the place and was actually instructed to ask potential customers if they were aware of the prices before accepting a reservation – simply to avoid heart stopping moments when the bill was presented. But La Crisis (the Spanish name for their current financial condition) reaches everywhere and we, as the only people for lunch, were shown around the place by the manageress and treated so gushingly by her overly enthusiastic  Swedish assistant that I really believed that I could ask for anything. Yes anything.

After a siesta we set out at eleven or so that night for a pub tour of our village. This didn’t take long since there are only two bars and it was a little disappointing. The promised music and dancing in the second bar did not materialise. There was music, but just recorded stuff, and no dancing. In fact all seemed much as usual in Lo Coscoll except for two things: first of all most people seemed to be companionably drunk, and second everybody was smoking (yes they do have a smoking ban in Spain, hence the surprise).

Christmas day was cloudy but warm. We went to the bar again only to find it virtually empty and Raul, the barman, keen to close up and celebrate Christmas with his girlfriend’s family – then return in the evening to open the bar again - so we strolled around the seemingly empty, completely silent village. We did meet one person, Carlos, but he is Swiss and has obviously taken an assumed name and can therefore be discounted. Then home for the Christmas dinner which featured turkey with a pop up. Margaret had already told me about the pop up and I was intrigued. In my imagination I thought of the first Alien film: the scene where the alien pops out of an astronaut’s stomach. The reality was a little disappointing: the pop up is a white plastic tube with a red end which rises when the inside of the turkey has reached a certain temperature. I experimented with it afterwards. It works like a car thermostat I believe - based on wax. It could be placed in old people’s ears to indicate when they have been sitting for too long in front of the fire. I’m saving mine.

Boxing days I usually take a long walk. In England it is cold so I dress up well. Here it was warm and sunny. Mostly I walked in shirt sleeves.  I used the time to trace the origins of the asequias (aquifers?) that keep our land supplied with water, but didn’t reach the place where they are diverted from the main river. Next year I will find the source. For most people here the day is a normal working day and thankfully the bar was open as I trudged tiredly back into the village for a well deserved pint (half litre of Heineken actually, but when in Rome).

In the evening friends came round. We drank a lot (beer,wine, cava, port), ate a lot, sang carols, played poker dice, talked a lot and went to bed late. Usual Christmas really, but warm outside and in.

Saturday 15 December 2012

The nose knows.

A strange transformation takes place when you live in a small Spanish village for some time.  When we first came here we were both appalled and amused by the nosiness of the locals: they stared at us so openly, they peered through the windscreen as we passed by, they walked so slowly past our open garage door that time seemed to stand still, they asked us highly personal questions. Now we behave similarly.

Twelve years ago we were the newcomers, the first English people to live in the village of La Fresneda. We were exotic plants imported from foreign shores. Now we are part of the flora and hence of little interest.  “Los ingles son aqui tambien,” they might say: The English are here again.

We once felt like outsiders. Now we view the people who have family homes here and travel down from Barcelona for the main fiesta in August and other holiday weeks as intruders - even though they have ancient roots in the village. We stay for months, they for weeks.

There are three houses undergoing renovation in the village at present (there are still a number of houses that are wrecks, supported only by their better preserved neighbours in the terraces that characterise old Spanish villages) and we study them avidly. What is happening? Is it simply a repair or complete renovation, who owns it, who is doing the job? The answer to the last question is usually simple: the workmen are Rumanian immigrants and the builder is Senor Enfadafo. His real name is Boris and he is the angriest man in the village and gets all of the contracts, but is still angry. He treats his workers like mierda and they love him because he provides work.

Today Margaret witnessed the kept woman who lives near us buying cheap boxes of wine. According to Louisa, the owner of the least gossipy of our two shops, the kept woman buys two or three litre boxes of gutrot wine each day. Margaret tells me that she (the kept woman) smells strongly of tobacco and our Swiss neighbour tells us that she is pregnant with twins! The father is the brother of the local bruja (witch) who used to run the bar in the plaza and bewitched the carpenter so that he moved in with her leaving his wife (Louisa of the shop) distraught – the shop was closed for weeks. What’s more the keeper of the kept woman has been in prison and recently threatened  a neighbour with a long carving knife over a parking dispute! Crikey, who needs a TV that broadcasts soaps that we cannot understand?

Some years ago a man was taken ill in the bar and the ambulance was called. When it arrived the ambulance men had great difficulty getting out of the bar with the stretchered patient due to the villagers crowding the exit. We were not amongst them, but if the same thing happened now…

I peer into the trailers of cars and tractors as they pass below my little building site. What are they carrying? Olives, firewood,  almonds, furniture, stolen cement mixers, stones… It is all so interesting. I watch the ants carry the crumbs from my packed lunch as I sit in the sun. Where are they going, do they gossip, why do the prefer cake to bread, how much can they carry?

We have lost our intellects and are now led by our noses. We are curious about things that seem trivial in frosty Stow-on-the-Wold and more so in cloudy Oxford . What is happening? Is this the first stage of dementia or a new awakening?

Anyway, after much Internet based research into where we should spend Christmas  (ranging from Casablanca, Madeira, Cadiz and San Sebastian) we have decided to stay in our village of La Fresneda. We just have to find out what goes on here during the festive season. The lights went on yesterday!

Monday 3 December 2012

The road to nowhere.

The village of Torre del Compte is the reason that we live in Spain. Our estranged daughter, Sheena, lived there for some years and became the landlady of the local bar. We rediscovered her, came to visit, and fell in love with La Fresneda – a nearby village - our village. Sheena found a house for sale there and we bought it.

Sheena left, but we remained. It was partly in her memory that we bought a huerto (smallholding) on the banks of the Matarranya River looking out towards her village. This is where I do my stonework. Sheena used to say that we were ‘stealing’ all her friends and it has turned out to be true. Tonight we went to a performance of Shirley Valentine by Dolors her best friend and we regularly dine out with her and husband Willy. On Wednesday next Amador, the village mechanic, will call in for whisky and dinner: he too was a close friend of Sheena’s.

The village of Torre del Compte has an aging population of less than one hundred people including just one child of under fifteen years. There is little reason to go there and many reasons to leave. I like the place, particularly the church, and of course it has these associations with our daughter and her sons. We spent a lovely fiesta night there a few years ago: following a group of guitar playing minstrels through the streets, stopping at friendly open houses for a drink, dancing in the plaza – cherished memories.

It still has a little-used bar - nowadays run by a pleasant Rumanian lady who does not even live in the village. It also has a shop and little-used swimming pool. The school closed years ago, probably as a result of my daughter leaving with her three sons. The streets are currently lit for two weeks at a time, on rotation, to save money. Spain, as you know, is in financial crisis – not a day goes by without at least one mention of ‘La Crisis’ in the news.

So why, oh why, is Torre de Compte getting a new access road? Nobody knows. A mammoth crane with a gigantic jackhammer has been cracking away at some solid limestone cliffs for all the time that I have been here this year. Slowly, very slowly, it is cutting off the sharp corners which gave the old road character and never, to my knowledge, led to death or injury. Slowly the stone is carried by a small fleet of lorries to fill the gaps between the old curves, gradually creating a straightened, widened road leading to the dangerous corner which provides, and will continue to provide, the narrow entrance into the village itself.

The road to nowhere will not create jobs, attract tourists, or stimulate the economy of the village in any way. In China we saw many new roads being built apparently to nowhere, but nowhere rapidly became somewhere as apartment blocks, shops, schools and industrial buildings followed the roads. Here, in a declining rather than booming economy, that is not going to happen.

Of course, there is a short-term effect. The road workers spend their pay in the bar and the shop, local people hopefully get some temporary work, the crane and jackhammer are kept busy.

In the long term I will benefit. Here in Spain non-degradable rubbish can be taken to the local village dump and discarded. Every month or so a digger is employed to push the stuff over the hillside where it adorns the steep slopes. Here there are dump-combers: cheapskates like myself and other incomers call around to see if anything jettisoned is worth reclaiming. Just last week I lassoed a good strong door and pulled it back up the slope from the Torre del Compte dump and it now acts as an excellent platform from which I do my stonework. The village has my favourite dump and soon, when the road to nowhere is complete, I will be able to shave at least half a minute off my journey to it.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

They even stole our apple.

It’s true, someone did.

Settling back into the rhythm of life in La Fresneda  we find that we are less trusting after the theft of all of my building equipment. As a consequence I have finally, after many warnings from Guillermo (Willy) who keeps his motorbike in my garage, secured the door with bolts rather than the screws which could be removed from outside. I also watch suspiciously as the few (probably five a day) vehicles pass the caseta from which all of my stuff was stolen. Terry, who owns the pizzeria in our nearest town and lives in an much more remote spot, tells me that he takes down the registration number of every car that passes! I have not gone that far.

I had planned to install a very secure steel door in the caseta from which the stuff was filched, but now that I am living here again I know that  would be stupid: comparable to hanging a notice outside saying “Valuables within”. Instead I hung up a notice saying “Quiero Piedras” meaning I want stones and applied myself to more practical security mechanisms. First, I have strengthened the door of the caseta whilst leaving its outward appearance unchanged. Second, I have retained the ruined slide lock (which the burglars easily disabled) because it looks locked to the casual thief. And third, I have installed a mechanism of my own design implemented by Alberto, the son of the local blacksmith, for a small sum. Having opened the broken lock, future robbers will find the door barred and hopefully the current version of my mechanism (version eight) will then completely fox them.

I have also installed a gate within the growing framework of heavy cornerstones that will, one day, support the front door to our second home in Spain: the place where we will pretend to be peasants tending our olive and fruit trees. This is above the original caseta and is the place that I have been working on for three years. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to install that temporary and trumpery gate made from an old palette. It is secured by a cheap bicycle lock from the local Chinese bazzar: a lock that any burglar will laugh at but hopefully is enough to deter the causal thieves who are always pilfering my stuff (this time they took a particularly useful long board).

On Saturday we had  lunch in Calaceite, a nearby  town. We had been going to visit Anna who is a self proclaimed “permaculture” fan and is building a sort of education centre for permaculture nearbye. Later we learned that “permaculture” is like “self-sufficiency” from our own day, but with a little more science and religion. Anyway, it rained so we all retired to a pleasant bar and had a pleasurable meal there. At one point we discussed security and I innocently asked whether it is legal to place mantraps in locked property where it is clearly marked, in many languages,  that mantraps are within. The reaction varied between absolute disgust and a concern for the very poor who have to steal because they have no other means of sustenance. Yet there is an empty house along our road which is guarded by a ferocious Alsatian dog with jaws as strong as any mantrap and I presume that’s legal.

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not thinking of installing mantraps in the orchard which we are creating. We have now planted nine trees there and were delighted to find that, despite a very dry summer season here in Spain, the Granny Smith did bear fruit. On a slender branch hung one small apple and we were really looking forward to sharing it. But some kind passer-by ate it for us. Ah well, there’s always next year.

Friday 9 November 2012

Cultural comparisons.

Having lived in Spain on and off for nearly twelve years and still not mastered the language I am in no position to make any grand observations on Spanish culture, but I have my opinions and everyone’s entitled to those. We are all individuals and all perceive culture from a very personal viewpoint.

We live in a village in Spain so my comparisons must reach out to Stow-on-the-Wold. That pretty place is the highest in the Cotswolds and before we left there a controversy of major proportions brewing. The town council had, following the example of nearby Bourton-on-the-Water, decided to install a comprehensive communication system. Loudspeakers were to be installed at many points in the town and then linked to the town hall. Announcements can then be made that will be within earshot of every resident. Information concerning forthcoming events in Stow will be given plus news of the death of any outstanding citizens and the time and place of council meetings. Every announcement will be preceded by a burst of loud music – and this is where the controversy lies. The council is completely split on this issue: one third favours the National Anthem, another Jerusalem and another Our Generation by the Who (for obvious reasons).

Naturally this is a complete fabrication, such a thing would not be considered for a moment  and the merest suggestion would cause a major explosion amongst residents so loud that it would be heard as far away as La Fresneda, our village in Spain. Yet La Fresneda has such an arrangement. It is called the ‘pregon’ and announcements are preceded by local music (called Jota) which sets all of the dogs howling. Not only does our village have a pregon,  I do not know of a village around here without one, it is just part of the culture.
So too is calling one’s wife one’s woman. How would that go down in Stow-on the-Wold? And the collective noun for parents is fathers and for children boys! Liberators gird your loins.

Car horns are used here to gain attention, or as a passing greeting, or just for the hell of pressing the button. Continuous white lines in the middle of roads on bends are regarded as advisory or at best as a warning to other drivers. I rarely undertake a journey here without seeing cars on the wrong side of the road: cutting corners is the norm. Spanish people are in a hurry; they drive very fast to complete their journey as quickly as possible then amble to their final destination.

Blocking the narrow streets of the villages is OK in Spain because that gives someone else a good chance to use their horn so that the owner can stroll good naturedly to the offending vehicle and move it.

The shops close at one and open again at six. The bars close only because everyone has gone home. It is quite normal for a musical session in a pub or wherever to begin at gone midnight. If you order meat as your main course, that’s what you get! No chips, no veg.

Young people here form clubs in their parent’s garages where they play music loudly and consume stuff. Many people crack their own almonds. The butano man calls once a week to sell bottles of gas, he uses his horn to attract custom. It is common to sit in a bar for many hours and not drink. Bars generall empty at nine as the menfolk go home to their dinner. They may refill later. There is a selection of police forces in the country. Spanish people have ceased to dance, they just sway to the music.

To the Spanish conversation is a competitive sport. To be a good listener is to be a bad sport. Here, real men drink small beers. The Spanish had conquests where others had colonies.

In Stow-on-the-Wold throwing rubbish onto the floor of a pub is a capital offence. In Spain it is an abnormality not to do so.

So what does all this add up to? Spain is a country of unliberated, rubbish throwing, noisy, horn addicted, strongly carnivorous, tippling,  late night party animals  who live in places similar to the that experienced by the Prisoner (do you remember that series, the whole place was also wired for sound). Anyway, how’s all that for stereotyping?

For myself I find little to object to and if I did then the obvious solution is to go home. Spain is supposed to be on its financial knees at present, though I see little evidence of that where we live - well away from the big cities. The problem, the Spaniards tell me is that the politicians are corrupt. So are the bankers, so are the big companies. Everyone is corrupt. What everyone, I ask. Yes everyone. That is a problem, that perhaps is the problem.

What I like most about the place is that it is different and, because I understand only a little of what’s being said, it’s also mysterious. Long may it remain so, and I think my woman agrees with me if only I could tear her away from the Daily Telegraph (delivered to my Kindle) and the Archers Omnibus (downloaded from the net).

Sunday 28 October 2012

Being myself – Rib and the mobile phone.

I, like most people, am many things inside. For some time I have been going through a minor, but important crisis. It concerns my mobile phone, but is really about something a little more fundamental.

I hate texting. No, let me rephrase that: I hate texting on phones that do not have a QUERTY keyboard. To me it is like eating with chopsticks. I can do that quite well – but why? Give me a knife and fork anytime (except in China).

A while ago I found a phone that had a neat slide out QWERTY keyboard of reasonable size and yet also seemed to be a decent phone. It was obsolete, but I bought one through eBay. I tried to like it but it was rubbish. It had touch-sensitive features that self-activated. You never knew quite what it was doing. I soon sold it again through eBay.

I was then persuaded by a convincing sales lady to renew my contract with Vodafone and get a ‘free’ HTC Wildfire phone. She said that I would get used to its touch sensitive keyboard and anyway I could return it within a week if I didn’t like it. Enamoured at first by its location and maps function, that first week seemed to fly by. For a moment I forgot the main thing that I want a mobile phone for: to make and take calls and send the occasional text without thumbing a stupid numeric keypad.

This HTC thing may be good at Internet access, social networking and location based applications – but as phone it is crap, really crap. It made long calls to the local hospital on its own! One lasted for six hours and Vodafone charged me £100 for the call. It took a great deal of time and effort to get my money back. I never once managed to enter a telephone number without multiple errors and erasures. It needed constant cosseting; the battery needed recharging most days and software updates kept a ‘coming. I began to send weird texts and got worried replies. Once I sent a message to my granddaughter accidentally signed myself Rib rather than Rob, so she now calls me Rib! Incoming calls were a trial; mostly it decided to reject them when I actually wanted to answer them.

I sold my ‘smartphone’ back to Vodafone for a pitiful £20 and the chipper shop assistant who sorted that out whilst listening to my story of gloom with tolerant sympathy commented:

“I’ve got a button phone myself. “Only the high end phones are any good with touch.”

Well, I am too mean to buy an iPhone - impressed as I am the tricks that one friend plays with his - so I bought a Blackberry look-alike, new, for £14 on the net. Hey, it actually makes and takes calls without a hitch. It has a battery life to die for and a QWERTY keypad for texts. I feel so happy. I really like this little phone – it even has a usable camera and Internet access should a want it.

Am I, for many years a key teacher of the - then new - third generation mobile technology, becoming an atavist?  Probably, but it is really great to make and take calls again. After all, I was a telephone engineer once so maybe I’m simply being myself. Roll on 4G and all the good things that it will bring to an eager user community who perhaps do not regards telephone calls as a terribly important part of a mobile phone.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Blow out and feeding children to lions

The ferry is just leaving a grey windswept Dover as I write this. The journey to the port was eventful. Just over eight months ago I commenced the same journey – pulling a loaded trailer behind our small motor caravan. This time I am pulling another trailer with a similar load: it contains a concrete mixer, generator and rotovator to replace some of the things stolen from my building site in Spain. The “new” trailer is smaller and quite invisible when towing so, as part of its renovations, I added a pole to one corner so that I could see what the trailer was up to as I sped along. Good job too. Soon after leaving the M25 on the way to Dover I glanced, for the hundredth time, at the pole and it suddenly dipped and slanted to one side. This was followed by a loud grinding sound. I pulled quickly off the motorway into the hard shoulder and stepped out into the driving rain, careful to stand well back from the heavy traffic thundering by.

The nearside tyre of the trailer had burst spectacularly destroying the flimsy mudguard and wrapping the deflated innertube so tightly around the axle such that it jammed the wheel which then ground itself against the road: all destroyed. Luckily I had a spare, but it took me a good while to cut away the innertube and to run back to retrieve the remains of the mudguard. Good start! But it could have been worse.

I am concerned about taking all this replacement stuff over to Spain. An old song or recording keeps running through my head. It’s about a couple who visit the local zoo with their son Arthur. Their disaster was far worse than a burst tyre: the lion ate Arthur. Towards the end of the recording the zoo keeper apologises for the sad loss, offers his condolences and a sum of money to the parents and then, rather insensitively, encourages the mother to have another son. Her reply is classic: “To feed ruddy lions, not I”.

Will I just be feeding the criminals with more contraband to sell? Well, much of it is secondhand this time and I do have some ideas about security. The problem is that nothing short of viscous guard dogs will deter determined thieves. Yesterday, on my last tour in Oxford for a while, we watched a man cut away a heavy lock from a bicycle. He was not a criminal. The bicycle’s owner, who had clearly mislaid her keys, had called him. The scary thing was that he used a portable angle grinder to cut through the lock in less than three minutes. What chance have I got? One idea is to erect a very strong door with heavy slide locks – at least the bastards would have to work hard for their spoil. Onward across the waves and byways of France and to Spain!

Friday 7 September 2012

Ladrones in Spanish means thieves.

They told me that they would get me in the end, and they have. I have transported many things to Spain in order to progress my little project there. I am extending a small stone hut to make it into a liveable space so that we can tend our crops and enjoy living in our huerto, our garden in Spain. This year I reached a peak; I took a trailer over with a concrete mixer and a rotavator. When I left for England in March I secured the whole lot including my generator, ladder and scaffold to the wall with chains, bolted the door with a strong lock then left – nervously.
Why nervously? My hut is along a farm track which is much used in the day, but rarely at night. Nobody lives there. A determined thief has the leisure to do his dastardly work without fear of discovery. And yesterday he, she, or they struck. I had a call from Joy and John, an English couple who are building a house on the other side of the river, to say that the door had been ‘jemmied’ and everything of value taken. They even stole my trailer which was parked alongside with its wheel and ball joint locked. They must have lifted it into a lorry!.
 How do I feel? Despoiled. If I could find the thieves, and I would dearly like to do so, they would say, “but you are rich, you have money. That is why you can afford to buy the things that we steal. We are poor, we need the money, we have no work, no future, we have to steal.”
What can I say? I worked for the money which bought the things that were stolen. No one gave them to me. I did not steal them from a richer person. When I was young and just commencing a long life of house renovation and part time farming nearly all of my first implements, from a screwdriver to a spade, were bought second-hand. As life went on I managed to buy a plot of land, an old tractor and a plough. I did not steal the tractor and plough. I bought them at auctions and from farmers. I had a good job. I worked hard by day and sometimes all night. Perhaps I was just lucky.
I despise the people that have robbed me, but I do not hate them. I am not asking for sympathy here. I just want to vent some spleen. This theft could distract me from the building project, could distance me from Spain itself. But I think not. They must not be allowed to win – they’ve got my stuff but they cannot steal my will. The stolen things are, as people have reassured me, just things. Yet I was rather fond of them; we spent a lot of time together.
I will probably purchase new machinery, increase security, take everything home, become less trusting, more cynical, feel despoiled and less happy. Oh well, at least I drowned my depressed spirits in good old English ale last night after leading two tours. The income from the tours will help a little towards buying a new generator perhaps.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

Naked Sheep and Harassed Ducks

I grew up in the country until the age of twelve or so. In those days we marked off our year by countryside events and activities in addition to the usual markers of Christmas (presents), Easter (eggs) and Bonfire Night (bangers). In the spring we caught elvers and ate them. We threaded a load of worms into a ball, tied it to a string on a rod and lowered the tasty meal into the ditches and streams whose reaches were swept by the river Severn. The elvers would dig their little jaws into the worm ball and we would pull them out of the water and transfer them to a jar, then our Mum would fry them for breakfast. After this followed bird nesting, especially the hunt for moorhen’s eggs which we tested to determine whether a chick was developing inside, returning these to the nest and always leaving two or three eggs anyway so that the moorhen would lay again. The good eggs also made a tasty breakfast.
 Later came scrumping where we helped the farmer dispose of excess apples and ran like the devil if he came to thank us. Then there was blackberrying where we could earn a ‘fortune’ by cycling off to the best bramble patches to pick (and eat) the ripe blackberries. Our hands became stained red with the juice of the berries and redder still with a thousand cuts from the vicious thorns. A little later came rose hipping where we picked the seeds of wild roses occasionally opening one and pushing the contents down someone’s shirt. Golly did they itch. Then there was eel fishing followed by flatfish and maybe the occasional trout or perch. And of course, not to be forgotten, conker time when we bashed hell out of each others horse chestnuts.
We used to help our Dad gather leaf mould from the woods for the garden and were pretty much involved in the gardening itself: digging, planting, harvesting. And of course, there was Harvest Festival when the musty smell of the church was replaced by the smell of fresh apples, pears and vegetables and flowers.
However, the peak of the year was the Berkeley Agricultural Show always held, I think, in August. When we were very young we were taken there by our parents and were dwarfed by the horses and cattle. Later, my main memory of the show was the dangerous business of getting in for free: leaping across streams, swinging across the river, straddling barbed wire. Also the regular thrill provided by escaped animals – usually a cow or a pig – and the chase. One year a confused and spirited heifer made it out of the gates and all the way into the village centre.

I was reminded of this as I wandered around the Moreton Show on Saturday. It was much the same as the Berkeley event, though I fancy there were less commercial tents and more pigs when I was a boy. Also I cannot remember the ‘Dancing Diggers’. Perhaps we did not have JCBs in those days. We certainly did not have the sanitary centres where you could wash hands and boots after leaving the animal compound with its many notices warning everyone not to touch the animals. We did touch the Cotswold Lion sheep though, couldn’t resist it and their owner encouraged us to do it.
A pleasant addition to the show was the real ale bar that I discovered in one corner – though there was always a beer tent in the past and I guess that back then the only ale on sale was real. I mostly enjoyed the ‘Attractions’ ring – the other rings seemed to be for horsey events. It was in this ring that I saw the brilliant performance put on by two collie sheepdogs and their mistress. The collies were said to be having a weekend off from the sheep herding and in Moreton they were showing their skills at duck and goose control. It was both funny and impressive. For the finale the duckstress produced a troop of white Indian Runner Ducks which one of valiant dogs herded down a long thin tunnel made of white cloth. It was hilarious. So was the next event.
Star of the ‘Sheep Show’ was a loquacious New Zealander who really did manage to get his different breeds to dance: one made a good attempt at the Michael Jackson moonwalk! His constant chat was amusing for children yet often risqué for adults. After his naked sheep routine in which he expertly sheared the coat off a shaggy looking individual then popped her back into her cupboard (with the assurance that it was not an oven) I’m sure he offered the ladies of the audience a bikini shave for just 30 pence and actually offered to pay them. There were no takers.

Sunday 5 August 2012

It’s OK. It’s democratic.

I am currently reading a book called Village Democracy by John Papworth. I have to read it because a very kind person called Peter (see previous blog) gave it to me – and because it may well predate all of the thoughts that I currently have about the failure of western democracy. So far it is a strange read: teasing, challenging, strongly biased, truthful, misleading, majestic in scope yet selective in detail. I do not know whether I will finish it. The book both irritates and intrigues me.

Peter gave me the book because I exposed my own fledgling thoughts on the reform of democracy as we know it to him. I’m sure that you will have your own opinions on democracy, there are probably as many theories as there are varieties of lettuce, though less long lasting. The only thing that we can all strongly agree on is that there is something wrong!

Nevertheless, most of us will defend democracy to the death; after all its part of that indisputable bundle of goodies that all believers in a free society support: freedom of expression, justice, an unfettered press, self-determination, and so forth.

A few years ago I wrote a book called The Battle for Stow. Though it describes the actual historic battle of Stow and in it I repeat the long journey that the soldiers of King Charles I undertook, it is also about the battles that exist in the small town of Stow-on-the-Wold right now. Those battles concern the divisions between local people over issues like: the gypsy fair, an ageing population, religious divisions (particularly the growing numbers of Plymouth Brethren), incomers versus locals and so on. Naturally in my research I approached the local councillors – and that’s what sent me spinning along the path of hierarchical democracy.

Once, talking to a local in Dubai about democracy, I was put on a spot. After explaining that, at a certain age, each man (only men of course) in Dubai has the right to a plot of land and interest free loan from the government, he asked me this question:

“If all the men in England were offered a similar gift in exchange for foregoing their vote in all future elections how many would accept?”

I couldn’t answer. Who could? But it was a question that made me think, and also to fear that the answer would be much higher than I dared to admit. It made me think about the low turnout for many elections, the abysmally poor opinion of politicians held by so many, the much-used phrase “they’re all the same”, the remoteness of Westminster, the awful cynicism towards democracy amongst the young, the disinterest.

I believe that democracy has to have a firm local base, yet turnout for the UK local elections in May this year was less than a third whilst in our most recent national elections it was nearly two thirds! When I talked to local councillors in Stow their most noticeable complaint was that they were powerless. The town councillors have little direct responsibility and no direct influence over those at the next level. Those at the next level have little influence over local Stow affairs because they are swamped by the mass of other councillors and the constraints of party discipline. And so the problem increases as the stakes rise up towards the British parliament and Europe.

I am not a cynic. I do believe that most politicians do what they do to serve the community and to achieve a little personal aggrandisement. Some go off the rails of course, some become corrupt. This is where the press does a wonderful job; corrupt politicians can rarely get away with it for long. The main problem, I believe, is remoteness from those that they represent and indecent closeness to those in power.

This is a big problem and my solution might seem simply naive. It is this. Local councillors should have power over local affairs as far as practical and the power to elect and fire the next level of representatives, and so on up the tree. Local councillors are the people you see in the shop in the pub, on the street, in the church. You know them, you can nobble them. They hold local meetings, they know what is right for their community and if they do not act on that knowledge they know that they will get a flea in their ear and will soon loose their place. Similarly with the next tier, a person elected from and by the local team is going to be in regular touch with them and so on up the tree.

Well that’s it: hierarchical democracy, where the electorate choose their local representatives and they in turn choose the next tier and so on. Of course it needs development, refinement, expansion, and I am working on that by discussion and by missives like this. It is not OK to say it's OK, it’s democratic. Democracy as we know it has carried us a long way, now we should be re-examining the workings of democracy itself. Cynicism or abstention is not the answer.

As Vodas Galegas Son Formidables

I went to this wonderful wedding in Galicia in May and wrote a blog about it (see below). I sent my account to Jacobo, the groom, and he decided to translate it into Galician. And I thought, well why not put the Galician version up here as well. Makes my blog seem so much! (See the photos in the original English version.)

 Traducción do orixinal en inglés.

Viaxamos dende a nosa casa en Aragón para regresar a Inglaterra, facendo unha ruta máis longa para cruzar a raia con Portugal e ir logo cara o norte, a Galicia. A voda celebrábase na vila de Ordes, cerca de Santiago de Compostela, logo iríamos cara Santander a coller o ferry. Choveu.

No día da voda a irmá máis vella da noiva colleunos ao mediodía, como prometera, para logo coller outra invitada, Isabel, nun hotel da vila. Ambas mulleres falaban inglés, moito mellor que o noso español. Conducimos cara un lugar preto de Ordes e a irmá mostrounos o camiño ao garaxe. Esta era a casa da nai e o pai da noiva, e estabamos alí para os aperitivos: o momento de comezar a beber chegara.  Unha mesa grande, chea de pinchos e todo tipo de bebidas estaba rodeada por xente diversa vestida de punta en branco. A máis impresionante era a irmá máis nova da noiva, cun espectacular vestido verde e a súa prima, incluso máis espectacular cun vestido cor cereixa; ámbolos dous longos e cinxidos. A nai da noiva vestía de malva e era afable, pero seu  pai era un chisco reservado – probablemente non tiña nin idea que dicirlle  “aos ingleses”. Nembargantes, rapidamente fixémonos amigos de Isabel, a que coñeceramos no coche, e Sindo, un home alegre que pasou case vinte anos vivindo cerca de Londres traballando de albanel. Tomei unha cervexa con el e pareceume moi divertido. Contoume que a súa muller non lle gustaba Inglaterra. Non falaba ben inglés e dáballe medo coller o teléfono. Agora regresara á súa Galicia natal e contoume que as vodas inglesas eran aburridas, ao contrario que as galegas, que eran moito máis divertidas. Sorrín e decidín agardar e comprobalo. Patricia, a noiva, apareceu: estaba pálida pero preciosa nun vestido de noiva  branco e axustado.

O irmán de Patricia levounos de volta a Ordes. A igrexa estaba á volta da esquina dende o piso dos noivos: a noite pasada prestarámoslle atención, no medio da choiva, á lámpada acesa, moderna e con vidreiras.

Vimos a chegada de Patricia no coche que a trouxo ata a igrexa. Jacobo, o noivo, estaba xa xunto ao altar vestido nun elegante traxe de chaqueta longa. Afeitárase a barba corta  que tiña do día anterior  e tiña aspecto garboso. É un home alto cunha boa mata de pelo revolto. Saudámolo e vímolo razoablemente tranquilo. Houbo algo de atraso antes de que entrase Patricia do brazo do seu pai. Conmovedora música de violín acompañaba o seu paso: música que me encantaba e coñecía ben pero non podía realmente identificar. Ese paseo debe ser longo para calquera noiva.

O crego era un señor maior con  voz agradable. Vestido en branco e ouro, sentou á parella de noivos nun banco mirando cara o altar cun padriño a carón de cada un. A misa foi longa e opaca. Foi compasivamente interrompida por máis agradable música tocada por dous músicos que estaban fóra da miña vista durante a cerimonia (ao principio pensei que era una gravación de moi boa calidade) e polas lecturas feitas con seguridade polas mozas dos impresionantes vestidos. A maioría das palabras do crego eran en galego, coido. A miña mente íase ás veces porque non entendía, pero ollaba a costume do crego de erguer as mans ben altas e mirar cara o ceo como contándolle a Deus o gran peixe que collera.

Analicei a igrexa. Era románica, bastante sinxela, e supuxen que bastante moderna. Suficientemente bonita e resaltada por un soberbio retablo dourado cunha porta dourada colocada nun piar. Este era o lugar onde o crego gardaba o viño. Recolleuno de forma cerimoniosa ao terminar o ritual. Nun momento dado houbo un complexo intercambio de aneis que non puidemos ver. Nembargantes, todo foi gravado; as dúas fotógrafas parecían poñer os obxectivos das súas cámaras directamente nas mans dos prometidos. Despois todos estabamos dándonos as mans como se fai nas misas católicas por algún motivo -  un bonito xesto – e logo para fora a tirar o arroz, o cal parecía bastante doloroso para os que o recibían e divertido para os cativos. Comezou a chover, pero os galegos non se inmutan por un pouco de chuvia, incluso nun día de voda.

O banquete tivo lugar nun marabilloso lugar no campo. Un emprendedor erixiu unha enorme carpa no xardín dun magnífico pazo. O teito da construcción era de lona pero as paredes eran maiormente de vidro, (excepto os baños, por suposto). Un enorme tubo transcorría ao longo da “carpa” e era, imaxinei, para o reparto de aire quente nos días de frío. Non necesitabamos aire quente, a temperatura era agradable dentro. No xardín había un auténtico emblema de Galicia: un “hórreo” enorme. Estas cousas son realmente pallotes para almacenar gran, etc. e calquera minifundio que se prece ten un. Son estreitos e altos e poden ser bastante vistosos  con alomenos unha cara con doelas para permitir a entrada do aire. Pero a parte máis salientable destas estructuras é a base. As construccións varían, pero a maioría consisten en algo parecido a unha copa de viño invertida sen o cáliz e feitos de pedra ou cemento. Os ratos ódiano porque son infranqueables e os fungos (NdT: Dry Rot - Serpula lacrymans) perden a esperanza de enviar as súas destructivas rizomas abaixo ao húmido chan.     

Ao carón do hórreo (o máis grande que vira) había un alpendre que albergaba o zona de fumadores. Na mesa había puros, cigarros e mistos de balde. Este luxo podería ter acabado cos meus vinte anos de abstención, pero aguantei.

Fomos agasallados con máis saborosos petiscos e con un sen fin de vasos de viño doce e rapidamente perdín o apetito e xa estaba un pouco bébedo. Estaba listo para bailar. Pero aínda había máis cousas por comer. Os máis ou menos cento cincuenta  invitados fomos conducidos a mesas redondas onde todos atopamos unha minuta cos diferentes pratos e unha lista de viños. Estabamos orgullosos de que nos sentaran  na mesa dúas, a carón da mesa principal; eu estaba sentado ao lado do irmán pequeno do noivo, nunha mesa chea de xente que falaba inglés. Elegantemente disposto, había un boliño de pan pegado a cada prato tan grande que podía ser facilmente confundido por unha loaf (NdT: peza de pan grande e alongada xenuinamente inglesa).

Medio lumbrigante e unha das súas pinzas formaban o primeiro prato e namentres me enfrontaba ao delicado problema de extraela carne disto, os camareiros continuaban vindo con máis, e máis, ignorando as miñas súplicas de “suficiente” (NdT: No orixinal). Bañado cun viño branco máis amargo, este festín foi rapidamente substituído por ameixas que pregaban ser comidas e ser regadas por máis viño branco e logo substituídas por un prato como é debido de delicioso linguado – e máis viño branco. Sobrevivín ao prato de peixe e coidaba que isto era todo. O meu estómago estaba de acordo, pero mirei o sorbete de mango con sospeita – xustamente. Isto era o anticipo do prato de carne! Estaba completamente cheo, pero a carne era tan sabedora que a comín xunto coas verduras e probei o equilibrado viño tinto. Afortunadamente a sobremesa era lixeira e iso (signo de alivio) foi todo. Un banquete realmente suntuoso e memorable para cento cincuenta persoas.

Non houbo discursos, o cal estivo ben porque non os teríamos entendido, pero a cada pouco xurdía un berro, normalmente comezado por unha animada mesa  de rapaces “fedellos” que estaban ao fondo (amigos do instituto de Jacobo, coido) e logo continuado por moita máis xente. Non entendía as palabras, pero o significado era claro: era unha petición para os noivos para bicarse. Pretendían resistirse, pero sucumbían con grandes aplausos. Logo houbo peticións para que se bicaran  os padriños. Despois houbo un brinde xeral polas avoas, ao que todo o mundo bebeu. Posteriormente en tódalas mesas, a xente ergueuse para xuntar as copas e brindar por calquera cousa que lle viñese á cabeza.

Cunha sinal acordada de antemán a noiva e o noivo desapareceron e a música comezou -  unha peza de baile de salón dalgún tipo, a través das portas que levaban aos baños, os noivos apareceron repentinamente, bailando marabillosamente coa súa vestimenta perfecta. E, para o meu asombro, Jacobo de repente colleu en alto á súa nova esposa e arremuiñouna. Pensei que era un movemento perigoso despois de toda a comida e bebida, pero todo foi ben e a música foi inundada por aplausos e ovacións. Á parella uníronselle os padriños e a seguinte fase da festa comezara: beber e bailar.

Intenteino pero teño que admitir que non fun capaz. Pesado como estaba por tanta comida e viño, o meu corpo delgado só aguantou dúas pezas (frouxo) sen embargo pensei que Margaret tiña ganas de máis. Camiñamos  polos xardíns e observamos o cada vez máis frenético baile, maiormente estaba esparexido en grupos e a maioría centrados nos rapaces fedellos. O cénit desa parte da noite alcanzouse cando o DJ tocou unha popular canción nacionalista galega (NdT: Miudiño), algo equivalente a Rule Britannia penso. Transformou os bailaríns en cantantes.

Retirámonos da pista de baile pasando algún tempo  falando con amigos dos noivos  que tamén viñeran dende Oxford. Despois diso facilmente poderíamos ter ido a gozar dun sono profundo, pero tiven unha idea. Tras dous rons con Coca-cola  estabamos na pista de baile xunto aos mellores, dous máis e tiven que pedir unha Coca-cola sen o ron para Margaret – estábase convertendo nunha compañeira de baile pouco fiable e necesitaba moito apoio físico. Mentres tanto os rapaces fedellos estaban sendo máis fedellos, estaban lanzando ao aire aos noivos. O máis dinámico, Pablo, quen traballaba en Italia, tíñase quitado a chaqueta, a gravata e maila camisa e parecía un loitador máis ca un bailarín. Nun momento dado bailei con Sindo; homes maiores imitando aos rapaces fedellos.

Durante a noite démonos conta de que tiñamos unha relación con algunha xente da voda: xente que pensabamos que eran completos descoñecidos. Catro anos atrás prestarámoslle a nosa casa en Oxford a Jacobo e Patricia mentres nós estabamos en Asia. Cada certo tempo alguén se acercaría a nós (incluído Pablo, o loitador), a preguntar se eramos Rob e Margaret para logo contarnos que tiñan estado na nosa casa uns días. A moitos deles encantáralles o baño da planta baixa onde instalara unha bomba manual de cervexa dos pubs como cisterna. Todos eles mostráronse un pouco tristes coa venda da casa. 

Jacobo e Patricia eran perfectos anfitrións, ás veces bailando de forma enérxica cos mellores, ás veces na cadea de bailaríns bailando a conga, ás veces preguntándonos a nós ou a outros invitados se estabamos ben – estivémolo en cada momento. Gozamos tremendamente do día enteiro pero aledámonos cando Jacobo atopou unha parella que marchaba cedo (a iso das 3 a.m.) para levarnos de regreso á nosa caravana. Díxenlle adeus a Sindo e admitín que as vodas galegas eran realmente mellores que as inglesas.   

Friday 27 July 2012

In praise of arbitrariness

I’ve just returned from a walking trip. It was originally proposed by a friend who has long cherished the idea of walking from Yoxford, in Suffolk, to Oxford, our hometown. There was no particular reason for the venture: it was neither to raise money for charity nor to beat some previous record. We just did it because we wanted to and Yoxford  and Oxford have such similar yet dissimilar names.

Neither of us completed the walk, though we bottled out at different points along the way and for different reasons. There was little planning put into the trip; in fact right up until the very last moment we were discussing two very different possibilities: walking or cycling. I was for the former, Peter was for the latter. We finally decided this important matter at the spin of a coin – now that’s arbitrary.

We had a beginning and end point, but no set route between them, just a pile of maps. Except for the first night when we spent an excellent evening with Mark and Yvonne in their home in Yoxford we had no accommodation planned and carried only back packs with sleeping bags: no tent. We thought we would find somewhere to sleep wherever we finished up for the night – that’s arbitrary, and frightening for some.

We planned our route day-by-day and sometimes hour-by-hour. Our only overriding plan was to reach Oxford within seven days. We wandered along footpaths through the county of Suffolk using roads only if we forced to do so, walking through storms under cloudy skies with just the occasional glimpses of the sun.
On the first day my companion suffered from blistered feet, and by the third he had to give up. Plainly in great pain, he bravely soldiered on for as long as he could, but finally admitted defeat in Haverhill and took the bus to Cambridge then home. So, arbitrarily, I found myself alone.

The Icknield Way (an ancient track originally used by ancient Britons) became my constant companion soon after Haverhill. I followed it as closely as I could for two days then finally linked up with the Ridgeway, another ancient path: this was the most beautiful part of the journey.

Finally, after eight days of walking, I ended up in a pub in Thame footsore and exhausted. The weather had changed. The sun had beaten down upon me so much that I had to use an umbrella for shade as I traipsed along an old railway track from Princes Risborough. Arbitrarily I decided that I had had enough. I had walked about one hundred and fifty miles and was already in Oxfordshire so I finished my second pint, said goodbye to my three recently made drinking friends and took the bus home.

I enjoyed that walk from Yoxford to Oxford so much. Not the pain in my heels and my soles, nor the spasms in my legs as the days wore on, nor the constant ache in my shoulders as the backpack’s weight seem to increase day by day, nor the rain, nor the puddles of mud, nor the often wet feet – no, none of those. But the sudden appearance of a beautiful cottage or stately home, the surprising sight of a herd of deer, the metre high rabbit that turned out to be a wallaby, the tiger spotted from the corner of my eye in someone’s garden, a glimpse of Chequers – all of this and more made my walk a magical one. At the end of the day I often felt that I could not go on, did not even have the energy left to find somewhere to stay. But I always did find somewhere and I also found real ale which revived me and, more often, than not, company that regaled me.

And do you know? Along the way, somewhere between Royston and Baldock, I had an inspiration. I now know what my next writing project will be.

On the last night I struggled down from the Ridgeway to the town of Wendover. The first pub had no room at the inn and the second, the King and Queen, wouldn’t take me either. I had few options left: sleep on a park bench or somehow get back to Oxford and home. The latter was out – I still had a strong desire to reach Oxfordshire on my own two feet. Then a friendly voice next to me said, “You can stay at my house for the night if you wish.” So I did.

The voice belonged to a man called Peter. We drank together then walked to his home where he cooked a very welcome meal. He made me scrambled eggs on toast (with mushrooms) for breakfast and we engaged in a long and rewarding conversation over both meals. He turned out to be a really interesting man as well as a hospitable one. I am sure that we will meet again following our arbitrary crossing of paths at the end of my arbitrary trek.

Please note that any connection between the Yoxford to Oxford walk and the forthcoming Olympics is quite arbitrary and that this blog is an Olympic free zone.

Sunday 15 July 2012

New book on China

I’ve published a new eBook! That makes eight that I’ve now got up in the Kindle store. They do sell, but not in great numbers – got a cheque from Amazon for just over $100 the other day though which is nice.

I blogged earlier this year about my ‘brilliant’ marketing ploy which consisted of giving one of my books away. I stopped that at 300 downloads and to my disappointment my generosity seemed to have little effect on follow up sales and did not result in a single review.

The new book is another ‘brilliant’ marketing ploy. It is about our two trips to China and should turn up if anyone searches the Kindle store for books on travel to that country and there are a few general keywords which should  also draw in a goodly number of potential readers. It stands alone as a book, but is also an advertising channel for my novel Shaken by China, which I would really like people to read. So it’s not a loss-leader, but should be a leader.

The new book is called China: Don’t go there until... Catchy eh? The ‘until’ is until you’ve read the book of course. Sort of Catch 22, sort of. You can see more details in my bookshop or in the Kindle bookstore. You don’t need a Kindle to read it. Just go to this link and download Kindle for PC (or Mac) and you can read it on your screen (but not in bed).  Here’s the blurb:

If you are thinking of going to China to teach or travel then don’t – not until you have read this book. The book may entice you to go or it may persuade you to stay. Either way if you are interested in China and wish to venture far beyond the tourist guide view then read this book.

The author lived in one of the most famous cities in China, yet few in the West have heard of it. He also lived near the epicentre of the most damaging earthquake in recorded history, yet it is long forgotten. China is so big that it hides behind itself so you need a book that takes you beyond the veil: this is that book. It is not a detailed study of the country, yet reveals the heart of the place through insightful revelations.

You will enjoy the accounts of teaching and travelling which are sometimes funny, sometimes sad. You will be surprised and shocked at the descriptions of school life and the life of the poor. You will begin to understand the very real cultural differences between the West and China and learn how to cope with them. You will also learn how to buy beer in Chinese restaurants.

Rob Walters’ book spotlights the fundamental problem facing the foreign teacher in China and provides a solution. It is entertaining and informative and, since it is based on two separate visits, gives a sense of China’s unending paradox: its stability and its ability to cope with rapid change.

Wednesday 11 July 2012

Dampening the Olympic Flame

I haven’t written to this blog for while. I’ve been busy: walking, guiding and also trying to finish a book about teaching and travelling in China. This is a special year for me and one way to celebrate it is through walking. However, my first venture of the summer was, well, wet. Who would venture into the English Lake District with a tent and sleeping bag in what turned out to be the wettest June on record?

We had three good days though – and afterwards my companion forced me to watch the Olympic flame's passage through Keswick. What a commercial thing that was: an hour of artificially simulated hysteria followed by a crescendo as the Coca-Cola bus passed by, another peak as the Samsung bus blasted us with music and a declining climax as the Lloyds-TSB bus came by. Following this jamboree of noise and dancing, the crowd hardly noticed the torch as its adrenaline rapidly leaked away (the crowd’s not the torch’s). Still the kids of all ages enjoyed the whole thing, I think.

On my return from the Lake District I had to prepare a whole day tour of the Cotswolds for an American couple. I have only ever done a day tour of the Cotswolds once before and on that occasion it was for a busload of singles. This time I decided that I really must include Chipping Campden (my own choice for the ‘jewel of the Cotswolds’ award) in addition to Chipping Norton with its wonderful, unbelievable, wool factory (now luxury flats).

I do know Chipping Campden a little, but not enough to do justice to a tour so I began researching. Turning to the web for some nugget of information, I found myself confronted once more by that travelling torch. The Olympic flame was due to pass through the town on the very day of my tour! The bloody thing is everywhere, even as I write it’s passing through Oxford; one of the reasons that I am hiding away in my little flat in the north of the city. The Chipping Campden website contained a warning from the police: they planned to seal off the town once the car parks were full and further warned that all empty houses would be searched prior to the great day: empty houses in desirable Chipping Campden, surely not!

So I had to drop the jewel from my itinerary. However, despite the flaming flame my Cotswold tour was a great success, I think. Generally I have been kept pretty busy leading tours in my city of Oxford. I like the job – though a few groups that I meet are best forgotten and will have certainly forgotten me - I hope. There is a problem bubbling away beneath the rich surface of Oxford tourism. It is a lovely place, redolent with history, characters and stories. And it has depth: however much you know there is always more to learn. The problem is that it is being oversold, not deliberately, but dangerously. Its highpoint is clearly the university and colleges and, though there is plenty more to talk about, these remains at the core of any visit. But quite a few visitors want something else.

I made a vow when I first qualified as a city guide that I would not conduct tours based on fictional characters – it seemed to me that there was plenty to cover in the real world. Despite that I have, over the years, expanded my portfolio of tours by specialising in: pubs, ghosts, literature, science, rogues and architecture. Yes, I know that you unbelievers think that ghosts are fictional, but you must keep an open mind. What I do not do is Harry Potter, Inspector Morse or Alice tours – though the latter is tempting since a real girl forms the basis of the books.

I must confess however that I do admire the Harry Potter stories and am now coming to the end of the sixth book (hence currently grieving over the death of Dumbledore). My excuse for reading children’s fiction is twofold. First, I need some background for my general tours which do encounter various Potter film locations and many visitors are really interested in these. Second, I am reading the books in Spanish to try to improve my understanding of the language – and I can tell you something - it’s very hard going, especially the later books where the vocabulary becomes so much wider.

However, like Harry or hate him he is only a sub-text in the real story of Oxford, as is Morse and even little Alice. The real story is in the history and the buildings of this world famous city. Yet so many people are drawn to it by the fictional characters and have little interest in the real Oxford. The place is not Disneyland; it is essentially a city of learning and car manufacture. Many tourists come here for the right reasons and thoroughly enjoy it. Those coming for the Disneyland experience are inevitably bored by the very things that make Oxford what it is – the real Oxford.

All that said I have a break coming up. A friend and I are going to attempt to walk from Yoxford to Oxford in seven days. So I am just off to make an offer of appeasement to the rain gods.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Escape from Russia

The visit to St Petersburg was a surprise romantic trip for my wife on our wedding anniversary. It’s a stunning place; we both loved it – until we attempted to return home.

Our plane left at a convenient time: 11.30 a.m. At just after nine we stood in the sunshine near the sign that displayed the timetable for the Airport Express. The vehicle existed, we had observed it at this point as we walked between the hotel and the Dostoevsky Metro station. It was simply a white minibus with Airport Express in black on its sides. The timetable indicated that its number was K9000 and that the first bus was at 9.15 a.m. then every half hour. Many buses and trolley cars came and went – the Express did not. The heat became intense. 9.45 a.m. came and went yet still no bus. At 10 o’clock, I broke and re-entered the hotel to order a taxi. No problem sir – but the fixed price of 1,600 roubles was well beyond my remaining cash. No problem, there was a cash machine in the lobby and I had already used it (you need a lot of cash in St Petersburg). But now, in extremis, it would not dispense cash to me. A kind man tried to help me though I do not really need help with cash machines that have an English option. His motivation was unclear until he announced that he was my taxi-driver. I followed him to another machine, still no joy and time ticking on.

“Come,” he said decisively and we piled into the cab. We negotiated as he sped towards the airport. He called someone for the current exchange rate of sterling and we settled on £30 plus 100 roubles. He got us to the airport by 10.30 a.m. Good man. We struggled through security and tried to find check-in. Nothing on the screens so I asked some one for help and was mortified to find that we were in the wrong terminal! Terminal two was the international terminal but our airline flew from the domestic one – terminal one.

We rushed outside, and looked around the semi-deserted departure set down area. I found a bus but it did not go to terminal one. I found a taxi but he wanted 700 roubles for the trip. I offered him all I had (about 350 roubles) but he would not budge. Rushed back to the bus where a young woman who spoke English took us in hand. She said that the bus went partway and we should take it. She joined us. It dropped the three of us on a dual carriageway where I struggled over a bridge to the other side. Here our helper stopped various buses – no good. Then she waved down a car and after a fervent discussion with the driver stated that he would take us to terminal one for 200 roubles – all I had left. He drove his old banger at satisfying speed whilst bemoaning, in broken English, the current state of democracy in Russia.

We tried to rush through security, which is impossible, then dashed around looking for check-in. It was closed – no one there. I ran to other desks and then to the information point. There the expressionless woman told me that we had missed the plane and we must go to the Russian Airways ticket desk. “But the plane has not left,” I bleated. She busied herself with the next query.

At the ticket desk I was told that we had missed the plane, the next was in two days time, and that we would have to pay a charge for new tickets. Kindly she searched her computer and found that there was a BA flight later that day and gave me a price (wince). Also there was an Aeroflot route via Moscow. We went to the Aeroflot desk and were astounded by the price. We retired to a diner where all we could afford was a glass of milk between us! But it had Wi-Fi and I found a cheapish apartment which looked nice. We decided to stay for the two-day wait. I booked the apartment then returned to the Russian Airways desk to book our flights. This took a lot of computer bashing and another bashing on the credit card but at last we were all set. I found a cash machine that worked and we returned to St Petersburg centre.

Two days later we began our journey to the airport again. This time we knew the correct terminal and, even though the plane left at the same time as the last one, we started out earlier. We also followed the guidebook by taking the metro to Pushkinskaya station where it stated that the Airport Express would take us to the terminal. This was the metro station that the Airport Express had dropped us at when we first arrived in St Petersburg. We were full of confidence this time, but soon became worried: there was no Airport Express at Pushkinskaya though we asked and asked and searched and searched. Of course, a taxi driver offered his services and stated that there was no Airport Express. At first I ignored him, but, in desperation, asked him the price.

“Special price – 1,000 roubles,” he replied. It was a special price and he was not a real taxi driver: his unmarked car looked a bit rough. But we had no choice so I agreed. Then I looked in my wallet I did not have enough roubles – as before we had tried to minimise the Russian cash that we took home. I held out 750 roubles and he agreed to take it. Off we went in the old banger which this thick set, bull necked man wrenched around corners using his own power steering - brute strength.

We were there by 10.15 a.m. Plenty of time. Security again (how many X-rays can one suitcase take) then off to check-in. We smiled confidently. We had made it. A sultry assistant examined our passports before check-in then called a large uniformed man over. I had a sudden thought – the visas had expired on the day of our missed flight, surely they wouldn’t, couldn’t keep us there for a two day overstay which wasn’t our fault? The man showed no expression as he examined the passports then accompanied us to the check in desk. Everything seemed to be going well. We were issued with tickets and our bag chuntered up the slope to join the others on their way to the plane. I began to relax: once your bags are on you have to travel too; otherwise the bags have to be taken off again. Then the man’s hand snaked forward, yanked our bag of the belt and plonked it on the floor. It was going nowhere and nor were we. He beckoned to us. I asked about the bag. The check-in woman said that if we got through passport control it would be placed on the belt – no problem.

We followed our minder through to passport control then tried to select the queue leading to the most amenable checker. We began to inch forward, perhaps all would be OK. Then our minder was joined by a younger, smarter looking man. They talked whilst looking suspiciously at us. They then nodded in conclusion and yanked us out of the queue! I asked the younger man if he spoke English: he ignored me. The two of them took our passports and tickets and talked between themselves. We were becoming frantic.

Then an angel appeared, later I learned that her name was Anna. She was in her twenties and spoke perfect English and Russian. She asked what was going on, listened to the men, heard our plaintive story and started translating.

“They say that your visa has expired. You must go to terminal two where there is a special ATM. There you must pay 1,400 roubles to extend the visa and return here,” she said.

At this point Margaret burst into tears saying that was impossible and that she just wanted to leave Russia. The men were unmoved. Anna got quite cross with them, but they insisted. We must go to terminal two to get the visa extensions. She took out a notebook and wrote down the name of the bank that I had to find. The men wandered off after giving me the passport and useless tickets. Margaret said that it was useless; we had been through this terminal one, terminal two thing already. Anna became a little cross with her.

“You must not be so defeatist,” she chided. “It is five minutes to the other terminal. It can be done. You can stay here. He can go. I have to go now - I have to work.”

I patted her shoulder and thanked her for her kindness. I shot off relieved to be alone since it was so much faster. I managed to get out of departures and swiftly found taxi, just 400 roubles – the official rate I think. But it was not five minutes to terminal two, more like fifteen. I did not dare look at the time, there was no point. At the other end I had to pass through the security queues yet again, but did not panic. I had resolved that if we did not make the plane then we would pay for any other alternative to get into Europe and out of the clutches of the Russians who seemed to be milking us like the proverbial cash cow.

I showed Anna’s scribbled note around and at last found the bank – just a small glass-fronted box-like office with one lady within it. She was dealing with a customer so I had to wait whilst dithering between panic and calmness. At last the other person left and I discovered that the bank lady had no English at all! But she did understand what I wanted when I pointed to the visa page of my passport. I guessed that this happened a lot. She took out a large file and began to read her instructions. She then held up a form which was entirely in Russian, she speckled it with crosses where I had to make entries. The form had to be completed in duplicate and there was one for each of us. She cajoled me into putting the right things into the right boxes by shouting at me in Russian and pointing at the fields of my passport. At one time the man behind me joined in. He did not speak English either but, surprisingly, he did help.

Then came payment, after many tries with my well-worn debit card and even with the help of the man behind me it seemed that she couldn’t extract the 1400 roubles from it. Finally I had to go off to a cash machine and get roubles – they were gradually draining my bank account. The forms were copied cut and stamped – now we were getting somewhere. She returned everything to me and I used my one Russian word on her - ‘spasibo’ – thank you.

I knew it was hopeless but I continued with the charade. I was sure that my plane was in the air by now, but I rushed out to find a taxi and had the fortune to pick up one that had just dropped someone off. The driver sped me to terminal one in just five minutes – magic and he only charged 400 roubles.

The security queue to enter terminal one was horrendous and I could not by-pass it – you can’t by-pass security. However, I did not panic; I was beyond panic. Then I was through and running for passport control. The charade continued. I called to Margaret who looked quite downcast and forced myself, with apologies, to the front of the passport queue. The woman at the desk made a call which was good sign I thought - perhaps the plane could be delayed for us. She then examined the passport and forms.

“But you have no visas,” she said chillingly.

My heart dropped. Was my drastic journey to and from terminal two in vain? Could we not get out of this bloody country even if it meant taking another flight? Another call and a young man appeared and led us away to another booth, then left us waiting. After five minutes he reappeared – with the young man we had encountered before. He looked at me, smiled and said. “Good”.

I had obviously done well, but did this mean that the plane was still there? More computer bashing and the satisfying thump of stamps landing on our passports then our man was rushing us through the gate, through another checkpoint (hurdle) and then security again. This was a high jump, the pass mark had risen. Margaret had to remove her boots and I had to take everything out of my pockets and remove my belt. We passed, then charged onwards dressing as we ran, for now we had lost our leader. Then we found him just as I realised that I had left my shoulder bag at security! I left him making furious phone calls on our behalf and then had to open my bag for examination by the punctilious security man. I ran back, we had to follow our man downstairs to a different gate and then board a big bus (just for us) out to the plane.

We walked down the aisle with downcast eyes and found our seats. Presumably everyone hated us for delaying the plane. However, some passengers did smile at us as we sank gratefully into ours seats: I do not know why they did. There were still delays before takeoff – missed slots for the runway I suppose, but finally we did get going. We were free. Russia had extracted a lot of money, and even more nervous energy, from us, but we had escaped. We smiled and agreed that we would never go back.