Saturday, 27 September 2014

Tunnelling through Europe as a drain mole

This trip to Spain was our longest by far: it took three weeks and on the way we visited Belgium, Germany, Poland, Slovakia, Italy and France. In three and half thousand miles (5.6 Km), we suffered only two minor collisions: both affecting the same wing mirror!

Most of the time we were above ground, but we did spend many hours in tunnels: like moles we threw ourselves into the ground, popped out for a few seconds then under again. Unlike a mole, we could see, but I can assure you that there is little of interest in tunnels except, perhaps for civil engineers (damned impressive curve that, just look at the finish on that concrete, etc). One tunnel was over two miles long…and the words ‘never ending’ were mentioned.

How does a mole navigate? I guess it does not; after all, it has nowhere in particular to go. A mole’s journeys must be fairly random (witness the tell-tale molehills) searching for the next worm. They are a bit like us on our journey: for ‘next worm’ substitute ‘next pint and a schnitzel’; gosh I ate a lot of schnitzels, love ‘em.

 SatNav, of course, does not work below ground, so would be little use to moles and, though our radio is SatNav capable, we do not have the necessary disc to enable it. I am in charge of route planning, whilst Margaret is the real time navigator and back up sign reader. We use maps of course, and as a back up - in other words when we get lost - I ask for help. We do meet lots of nice people that way. I would not say that we deliberately get lost, but it is worth considering.

Italy loves tunnels. I do not know why, perhaps there is some link here with macaroni. The coast to the west of the incredibly busy city of Genoa is laced with them. In fact, the gaps provided by the elevated motorways which bridge the deep valleys between each pierced mountain range are much shorter than the tunnels themselves. Yet the coastal road is incredibly bendy and often dangerously narrow for a motor caravan, so the mole route is essential. It costs of course. Margaret is in charge of payments since the toll booths are on her side of the van. It was quite amusing to watch her antics as she almost climbed out of the window to reach a high ticket machine, or almost vanished as she dangled down to make a payment. I almost lost her once.

Towards the end of our journey, we actually slept in a tunnel! Portbou is the first resort on the Mediterranean coast below Perpignan. It has a wonderful mirador (viewing place) high up in the cliff side looking down towards the village in its bay, and south along the Costa Brava. There was no one else there and no notices barring overnight sleeping in motor caravans (this was Spain). So we overnighted there looking forward to breakfast with views to die for. At about four in the morning, I could stand it no more: the howl of the wind and dangerous rocking of the motor caravan on its springs became too much. Unwilling to die, I drove down into the village and parked in a very long tunnel beneath the railway line, just alongside the notice that stated ‘Danger. No Parking in case of rain’. The howling of the wind was replaced by the sound of trains overhead and wind-blown plastic bottles bouncing through the tunnel. We did get some sleep though, then returned to our mirador for breakfast.

Now, settled in our village of La Fresneda at last, we are enjoying the sole produce of our huerto: one large watermelon. That’s above ground. We also have potatoes below if Adrian Mole hasn’t stolen them.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Scotland viewed from afar

I have just reached Verona in Northern Italy, having travelled fairly rapidly from Poland via Slovakia and Austria. I liked the latter best. On our travels we have met a number of people of different nationality and almost every conversation  contained a discussion on the Scottish independence question (now mercifully answered, and for good I hope). The most common response was incredulity: incredulity that the Scots would consider independence at all and furthermore that the vote might be a ‘yes’. “That sort of nationalism is a thing of the past,” a man from Germany told me.

Leaving Slovakia, we circled Bratislava on our slow progress towards the south-west and got badly lost. This was not unexpected; the route was a difficult one to plot on our inadequate atlas of Europe and intersections, road numbers and terminal points were vague. Finally, we found ourselves on the road to Budapest in Hungary whereas we were supposed to be heading for Graz in Austria. We knew that we had lost it when we passed through an extensive set of dilapidated border control buildings. I left the main road and headed north in the hope of intersecting our original route. Soon we passed another border control complex and my these things were big: splitting the road into many lanes and dotted with ugly concrete constructions. The building were in an atrocious state: ceilings collapsing and the area dotted with the detritus of neglect and, of course, entirely deserted. The army of border guards had long dispersed and hopefully were now doing some more meaningful task.

Baratislava has nearby borders with Germany, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, now completely unchecked and, as far as I can tell, creating no problems. Those crumbling frontier posts should be a monument to Europe united now by peace and beneficial commerce – and to the death of that evil force that has caused so much death, pain and suffering: nationalism.

Our passage through Slovakia was not the most memorable, though the Tatra mountains were impressive and a great contrast to the flatlands of Poland. The country seems poor and neglected and our first choice for an overnight stay, Zilina, was quickly rejected. We found a better, smaller place nearby called Bytca and had a meal in the Galleria restaurant, just me and Margaret in a vast and beautiful subterranean restaurant. I was awakened at 3 a.m. by a loud scream. Someone was trying to steal our bicycles from the rack at the back of the van. Fortunately Margaret’s scream was enough to scare them off, but further sleep was near impossible.

Why Slovakia separated from the Czech Republic, I do not know. I cannot even remember it happening. Comparing what I saw of country with previous visits to Prague (probably not a fair comparison), this nationalistic split has not benefited the country. However, they do have Tesco supermarkets and Margaret took some mysterious delight in visiting one: her attempt to use her club card was, however, rejected.

And so back to Scotland. We celebrated the confirmation of the union last night with a dram in a Veronese bar. The waiter found three whisky bottles from which we could choose; of course we chose the Scotch. We talked animatedly of what would follow the “no” vote and drank again to the welcome news of the First Minister’s resignation. I then asked for the bill: sixteen euros for two whiskies!!! It was enough to make a Scotsman - and an Englishman – blanche. Why you can by a bottle of the stuff for that and, worse still, - I do not even like it.

Anyway, roll on the union. Time for closer economic ties with Ireland and a united British Isles rather than United Kingdom. 

Monday, 15 September 2014

Poland for Vaulters

Someone (Ken Spence, actually) once told me a story about the Olympics of the past - I don’t know when. A man from the press walked up to a male contestant and asked, “Are you a pole vaulter?”
He replied, “Yes, and how do you know my name?”

We left England on the 3rd of September 2014 and did a quick dash through Belgium – very flat - and into Germany, finally slowing down in Kolenz where we camped outside the camp site (cheeky) and began our Rhine experience. It was lovely: the castles, the river, the villages, everything. A bit busy though – and far too many motor-caravans (we thought we were special, in Germany everyone owns a motor-caravan). We enjoyed Heidelberg, Bamberg and Meissen, then finally by-passed Dresden at 1,500 miles and achieved our goal: Poland.

It’s not so different here. Hmmm, oh yes it is different. They do not have the Euro, the roads are mostly terrible, they drive maniacally and have their own wonderfully unique language. Hangman cannot be played here. Many of the town names lack vowels entirely: rhythm would not be an exceptional word in Polish hangman.

Our first Pole was not called Walter, but Yollande. She was incredibly helpful when we were lost, shaken (from the roads) and despondent in Swidnica. She mounted her beloved bicycle and guided us to a campsite near the centre of town (we do not usually use them, but Swindica threatened) following slowly as she pedalled through the streets. She has a daughter in England and showed us the photos on her smartphone, many of them of the daughter’s dog actually. We thanked her effusively for her help, but she declared, to our surprise, that she did it for Jesus. So disappointing, I thought that she did it for us.

Our first meal in that city cost less than £12, including five beers. Who cares about bumpy roads now then?

Our next Pole was called Kamila, not Walter. She was the daughter of the innkeeper whose garden we cheekily parked next to for the night. He came to complain – I thought. He kept pointing at our bicycles as if this was the final straw. Here he was running a hotel in remote and rural Poland and cheeky chappies arrive from England, with bicycles strapped to their camper-van, preparing to sleep right next to his hotel.  We shared no language so he finally called his daughter Kamila and she joined us to explain that her Dad thought the bikes might be stolen: would we like to store them overnight in the hotel! Next morning Kamila served us tea in the hotel and told us that nearly all of her school friends had emigrated to England.

Our third Pole was called Yan, they often are. We met him amongst the meteor craters north of Poznan. He translated the signs for us and described his life as the proprietor of a company supplying sinks and taps to kitchen installers. We also discussed the possible independence of Scotland – bizarre and expensive – and the current economy of Poland
Polish people, at least the English speakers with whom we interact, are so nice, so helpful. Can they possibly be the same people who have cut me up on the roads, shattered my wing mirror and who wake me at six o’clock in the morning by assembling in the car park where I am sleeping in my motor-home solely in order to start a cycle race?

Tomorrow Krakow: Poland for the tourist? We will see.

Monday, 1 September 2014

A tree line to John Fowles

Just re-reading John Fowles' The Tree with whining chainsaws and the clattering of a wood chipper in the background. My house at Stow has had a line of cypress trees close to the eastern wall ever since I moved in: they were big then, now they tower above the house and they give me nightmares.

There was a similar line of trees to the west which had to go when I extended the house some years ago. My brother-in-law and I cleared them, bringing down the telephone line and nearly causing a neighbourhood feud. We burned the felled trees in the back garden as we took them down; the smoke was so dense that I was completely unaware of the visit by my enraged neighbour and of his angry castigation of my poor, innocent brother-in-law.

This time, for various reasons, I have employed professionals and am hoping for an end to my nightmares. Imagine waking up in the early hours to a strange slithering sound which you cannot identify but your half-awake mind exaggerates into the worst of horrors. Realising that the sound was simply the brushing of the branches of those trees against the roof helped a little, but also reminded me that their roots were undermining the house itself.

I love trees and destroying them pains me, but these had passed the line. Twice, I discovered that they had blocked my storm drains. Their roots had broken into the pipes and extended five metres into the weepers! Finally, they managed to topple the retaining wall beside them thus sealing their fate. Sad, but there we are.

If he were still around, I think that John Fowles would be quite happy with their demise: too regular, unnatural. He remains one of my favourite authors and a man I would have liked to have met. Exploring the Undercliff near Lyme Regis recently reminded of him and it was there that I took this strange photo of my son Rafe and my friend Robert Twigger. Fowles loved the wildness of nature and you can easily imagine him puzzling over the events that produced the distorted wonder that the two men are sitting on: they look like leprechaun out to enjoy themselves. In The Tree, John Fowles tries to describe his philosophy which itself underscores his wonderful novels (French Lieutenant's Woman, The Magus, etc). He believed that science and learning fetter our ability to enjoy nature. In labelling, describing, cataloguing we bury the immense joy that can be felt in finding a new flower or shrub or forest. Nature is wild and by categorising it we box it in, we curtail it: He was not a fan of Linnaeus.

When I write novels, I have only the vaguest notions of plot and ending. This gives me great enjoyment. Locked within my own creation, I often cannot wait to get back to it and to see what happens next. Reading The Tree, I was humbled and pleased to learn that my favourite author wrote in the same way. I wonder if they encourage this in "creative writing" courses. Meanwhile, though I very rarely read a book twice, I might descend once more into Fowles' magical worlds by re-reading The Magus. That's if I can get it cheaply on Kindle; I do find it hard to read a "proper" book nowadays.